More on Moblin

The Moblin steering committee has announced the "release" of the Moblin 2.0 Beta for netbooks and nettops.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

The Moblin steering committee has announced the "release" of the Moblin 2.0 Beta for netbooks and nettops. I have a couple of questions and comments about that, before I get into the last few observations about the software.

First, what are they "releasing" with the announcement yesterday? The current download image has been available for nearly two weeks. I've noticed that several batches of updates came through in the past couple of days, so maybe there were some fixes implemented prior to this announcement. But if that is the case, then why not make a new build available for download, with all the latest updates? Seems a bit odd to me.

Also, I find the addition of "nettops" in the announcement interesting. Not only as the proud owner of one, but also as a sign that they are keeping an eye on their target users.

Ok, now for my last few comments about Moblin. I've already written about the Moblin desktop, so this time I just want to fill in some details about how specific things work. Right at the top of the list is the browser. Now, I know that they say the Moblin browser is based on "the latest Mozillabrowser technology", but is it really necessary to invent yet another browser which looks, feels and works completely differently than Firefox, Chrome, Safar, IE or whatever? Maybe it is - maybe they think that their target users are so different from traditional computer users that they really need to design a new and different browser. But for experienced users, or really anyone who has used a browser before, the Moblin browser is likely to be the source of a lot of confusion and frustration at first. It certainly was for me!

I like the idea of "Pinned pages", especially because of its consistency with "Pinning" applications to the Favorites area. But that brings up the thing that confuses me - what is the difference between "Pinned Pages" and "Favourite Pages", and how do things get moved between those two? I looked high and low for Bookmarks before I finally realized that pressing the push-pin in the address bar would add the current page to the "Pinned pages" list. How and why do pages get added to "Favourites", how long do they stay there, how could I add my own to that list, or remove unwanted ones from that list? It looks to me like recently visited pages automatically get added, but it doesn't take much thought to realize that isn't a very good idea at all - in fact, it is just the opposite of the "private browsing mode" that IE and Firefox have been working on recently. If I visit the American Greetings page to create a birthday card for someone, and I don't particularly want her to know about it until I give her the card, why would I want that page added to my Favourites? How would I get it out of there after it was automatically added? You get the idea...

Second, Moblin seems to have decided to minimize the number of mouse/button actions. There are no "Minimize/Maximize" buttons in the window title bars, and there are only the simplest of "Backward/Forward" buttons. Also, I haven't found anyplace where right-clicking the mouse does anything at all... it's almost like someone from the original Apple Lisa/Mac group was involved, the ones who said "An N-button mouse has N-1 too many buttons". Again, this is a significant problem for experienced users, but might not be so serious for users who were first starting with Moblin.

One thing Moblin does not do which UNR does is start every window full-screen. Most of the top menu items are full screen, such as myZone, Internet and Media; others start with less than that, but may expand depending on what you do with them, such as Status, People and Pasteboard. I think both Moblin and UNR are going to have to rethink this a bit if they are serious about adding nettops to their target list. Automatic full screen is probably good when you only have a tiny netbook screen, but with a 19" screen on a nettop, there's not much that I want to see full screen, thanks very much.

Finally, the entire concept of desktop management seems odd to me. No task bar or system tray, or any other kind of always (or automatically) visible display of active windows. I suppose you are supposed to do all window management (or desktop management) by going to the "Zones" menu item, but that seems rather tedious to me, and besides I once again don't understand what gets put into which zone or why. Experienced users want to click an icon to go directly to whatever window they need. It looks to me like the "Zones" display will get pretty cluttered and confusing very quickly - but then again, maybe you aren't supposed to have a lot of open windows simultaneously, so it shouldn't matter.

All of the comments above, and some that I have made previously, lead me back to the same conclusion about Moblin. It looks like they have chosen novice or inexperienced computer users as their target audience. The entire setup, organization, desktop layout and options of Moblin seem to be geared toward using it as the center of your "Social Networking" activities. I think this is significant because there is a big difference between concentrating on netbooks and the like which have limited hardware, both input (small keyboard and touchpad), output (small display) and processing power (Atom CPU), which is what the Ubuntu Netbook Remix has done, and developing for a totally different target user group.

As I have said before, Moblin may well turn out to be exactly right with their approach. The success of Social Networking so far makes it obvious that this target group is very large. If Moblin appeals to them, and the netbook/nettop market continues to grow rapidly, they might end up in a great position. It might well be that if your target hardware is netbooks and nettops, then specifically not targeting experienced users is a good idea. We have had several discussions here on ZDNet UK about the fact that experienced users are frequently dissatisfied with the inherent limitations of netbook hardware. But if my own experience is any indication, nettops might confuse that, because I really like my Dual Atom nettop, but I would never consider running Moblin on it for my own use.

Here's another metric. I think it would be interesting to give a netbook with Moblin to a novice user, and see how they get on with it. But I am so uncertain about Moblin myself that I would never risk it with anyone who came to me for help. As I've said recently, I just set up a neighbor with Ubuntun Netbook Remix on an old Eee PC, and she is very pleased with it. I was just asked for similar help by another friend, but this time she didn't have a netbook yet, so I have ordered a new HP Mini 2140 for her. I will load UNR on it as soon as it arrives - I wouldn't even consider giving it to her with Moblin on it. Has anyone else done just the opposite, perhaps? I know there have been one or two comments to my previous blog posts about Moblin from people who were considering using it, or setting it up for other family members or friends. If anyone actually did that, I'd love to hear how it worked out, and what the user comments, successes and failures were.

One last thing. I'm still very disturbed by the lack of a "Stop/Shutdown/Off" button on Moblin, and I don't think I am the only one bothered by that, especially with experienced users but also with novices. I can see the argument about other devices simply turning off with the switch, such as cell phones, smart phones, PDAs or whatever. I've also heard the arguments about how conceptually difficult or confusing designing such a button or menu can be - there was a fascinating article about the internal workings at Microsoft that focused on the design of the "Shutdown" menu for Vista. But would it be so difficult, or dangerous, or confusing, to put one more button on the menu bar? There are plenty of hieroglyphics on there already, adding one more isn't likely to suddenly put the confusion factor over the top, is it? Especially if it is one that simply looks a lot like a power switch, sort of like the Gnome or KDE Stop/Shutdown buttons do?

Maybe I'm wrong - if there is anyone out there who thinks the lack of a Shutdown option, and having to use only the computer power button to shut down Moblin, is a good idea, I'd love to hear from you, so speak up!

jw 30/6/2009

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