Intel talks Linux, netbooks and rivalries

Q&A Silicon.com asks Imad Sousou, director of Intel's Open Source Technology Center, about the Moblin project - aimed at providing Linux technology for netbooks.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor
Imad Sousou is the director of Intel's Open Source Technology Center, which is behind the Moblin project — aimed at providing optimized Linux technology for netbooks and mobile internet devices.

On Wednesday, ZDNet UK caught up with Sousou at the Open Source In Mobile 09 event in Amsterdam, to discuss the nature of Moblin and the hardware on which it will run.

Q: There seems to be some confusion over what Moblin entails — it appears to be a full Linux distribution, but we have seen Suse and Linpus flavours, and Canonical are about to release an Ubuntu flavor. What is Moblin?
A: What Moblin really is, in technical terms, is a community distribution, much like Fedora or Debian, that people tend to use in different ways.

There are certain operating-system vendors who take Moblin completely as-is and use it, and add customization and provide support, and there are those who take various technologies from Moblin and incorporate them into their own operating systems — although, when people do that, they tend to focus on the user experience.

When you hear, for example, Novell is taking Moblin or Ubuntu is doing Ubuntu Moblin, they are using the operating-system infrastructure and taking the Moblin user experience, which is a set of applications — the 3D infrastructure and a set of libraries, infrastructure components like the social networking, media management and so on.

Essentially, from a technical standpoint, you end up with the same thing, but for the OS vendors it is sometimes easier to use a distribution system that they already use. We made it easy for them to use that.

I don't think there is a lot of confusion anymore, at least not with the people who use Moblin. It is a full OS but you don't have to use the full OS.

You're about to release Moblin v2.0. Can you tell us more about that?
[As a] release from an open-source perspective, it's a milestone more than it is a product release — product releases come from OS vendors and OEMs [manufacturers]. Soon you will start to see OEMs shipping netbooks with Moblin. You will see an announcement over the next week or two.

It's still in beta — right now we're in the very final phase. Very minor but critical bug fixes are being done based on input from OEMs and OS vendors. We don't want to call it a release until someone actually ships a product with it.

The final version will be available for download over the next couple of weeks. Once that happens, we will go on a regular cadence of a release every six months… to make it easy for people to be able to have predictability in terms of time schedules.

Will we see Moblin devices in the UK market soon?
With Moblin v2.0, there haven't been any devices released yet, and this is what we will start seeing over the next couple of weeks with netbooks and early next year with Moorestown-based MIDs [mobile internet devices]. You will see that everywhere in the world.

What changes have been made since the first version?
Version one of Moblin was more of an enabling project. It's basically just a set of technologies that Linux distributors and people who use Linux can use for the optimisation aspect on our [Intel] platform. Moblin v2.0 is when we started really doing an integrated OS with its own reference user experience that OEMs and vendors can take and customize.

What would a manufacturer or user gain from using Moblin on a netbook, as opposed to using a more standard Linux distribution?
There are a lot of things that we've done with Moblin that are fairly cutting edge, such as social-networking integration.

We created the infrastructure that lets you very easily integrate streams from all the social networks with simple [application programming interfaces] and then be able to allow the user, in an integrated way, to update their status and so on. Moblin also boots in five seconds.

It's things like this — we look at things from a user experience perspective, then we build all the plumbing, such as the kernel and adding libraries and 3D infrastructure.

This is a bit of self-criticism of what we've done in Linux over the past years — we in Linux have got to stop writing clones of the OSs from 15 years ago. People want to use these devices as an internet-media, social-networking consumption device, and this is what we've focused a great deal on, to provide those capabilities in an easy way to use while at the same time maintaining the traditional PC compatibility and consistency.

Earlier in the conference, Vodafone's David Pollington said users were confusing the intended functionality of netbooks with that of more high-powered laptops, leading them to find Linux unsatisfactory on such devices. Do you agree that a netbook is not simply a small PC?
It's different from a PC in one key aspect at least: a netbook is primarily a consumption device. It's great for browsing, playing your media, viewing documents and so on. People tend not to use a netbook to create content.

Is it possible to change consumer attitudes to netbooks, to convince them not to expect a PC-like experience?
I don't think it's up to us to change how [customers view netbooks]. In a lot of ways it's the other way around. We will support and do what our customers and end users want to do rather than trying to force some usage model on the end users. We won't advocate you should use this versus that.

How does Moblin stack up against Windows 7 on netbooks?
Windows 7 is a great platform for netbooks and we worked very closely with Microsoft on optimizing the Windows 7 OS to our platforms. It depends on what the usage model is — if somebody wants a PC, they should use Windows. We follow our end users and our customers, and if someone wants Windows, that's great. If [they want] Linux, that's great.

Moblin is also tailored for MIDs, which is a segment that hasn't taken off yet. Will MIDs become more popular?
The Nokia N900 is fundamentally a MID — a device that can do PC functionality and that includes a phone. End users want devices that can bring a full internet experience, viewing the web in a real way with Flash completely running, with all the normal plug-ins and content you would normally see. By definition, that's fundamentally what a MID is.

In my opinion, I don't see the MID as a new category. It's more an evolution of smartphones. There is some confusion [surrounding] the name. It's good to have terminology for something like a MID — it distinguishes it in what you are really getting. With the term 'netbooks', people said it was just a small notebook, and we said 'Fine, it's just a small notebook, so let's call it something that means that'."

Intel suddenly has a lot of competitors in the netbook and MID markets, with ARM architecture being used by companies like Qualcomm and Nvidia. How do you view these new rivals?
It's very hard to comment, because I haven't seen any of [the resulting devices]. For the past year and a half, I've been hearing about the ARM netbook or smartbook, but I haven't seen anything to see if it works.

From my personal experience, over the past several years I have been seeing people trying to put a PC OS on ARM, but you simply don't get the experience. It's the phone-browsing experience on a larger screen.

Unless the ARM ecosystem is able to fix the software problem of being able to provide a real internet experience, real compatibility and those things, it will be difficult because the internet is designed fundamentally for the PC.

Our long experience has shown that the internet changes things and it's not the other way around. Trying to do it the other way, in terms of the internet adapting to a different class of devices… it is hard to understand how that will happen.

What do you mean? Are you saying that web is designed for the x86 platform?
Fundamentally, that's true. It's designed for the PC in general and, unless your platform is designed to be PC-compatible, you will always… if you are able to show 90 percent of the internet but you cannot show ESPN and MTV and whatever your top 10 websites are, which are generally media-rich, that's what people use those devices for. These are connected devices for internet — the point of being connected is to use the internet.

What about Google's entry into the Linux OS market with Chrome? Do you have any view on that?
We will have to wait and see. Google does great things. From an Intel perspective, we don't view this as a competitor — we work with Google and everyone. We don't view Moblin as a competing OS to other Linux distributions; we work with them. With any Linux-based OS, we will provide them with whatever help they need.

Will Intel work with Google on the development of the Chrome OS?

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We work with Google in the upstreams: in the kernel, graphics subsystem, plotter and all these great upstream Linux products. This is what happens in the open-source community.

If you look at our work in Bluetooth, the maintenance of Bluetooth and what happens in the Linux Bluetooth stuff is done by Intel. That's used in Android, in the [Nokia] N900, in Moblin — we developed most of that in Moblin, but it gets used everywhere.

A lot of the technologies we use that we developed in Moblin, you will see everywhere. This is how open-source works.

This article was originally posted on ZDNet UK.

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