Novell Teaming With Intel to Encourage Moblin Adoption

by Ostatic Staff - May. 08, 2009

As the story broke yesterday that Novell and Intel were joining forces to encourage OEMs and ODMs to use the Linux-based Moblin platform on netbooks and small devices, a number of comments -- and questions -- began swirling in the open source world.

InfoWorld wonders if the collaboration efforts aren't a bad omen for Novell's SUSE Linux, while CNet's Matt Asay thinks the move could be a positive one for Moblin and Novell, and one that could ultimately give Google's Android a real fight.

I'm more inclined to agree with Asay's thoughts on the announcement -- Moblin is, first and foremost, meant for netbooks, while Android, in its original state, was not. This doesn't mean that it can't (or won't) work well on a netbook, but re-creating an Android experience on a non-smartphone device presents challenges, requires consideration of the fundamental differences between smartphones and netbooks and their usage, and a cohesive, natural port is going to entail a good deal of work and testing -- finding and rectifying mistakes before they become major issues.

InfoWorld's comments certainly aren't without merit, however. I'm not sure that Novell's collaboration with Moblin is necessarily "eschewing its own SUSE Linux." SUSE 11 is now an option on HP's ProBooks, and netbook manufacturers (such as MSI) have used the distribution on their products. But there's a difference between the HP ProBook and the MSI Wind -- a big one, literally. The latter is a netbook, the former an honest to goodness full bodied notebook. MSI has reported significantly higher Linux netbook return rates (though other netbook makers haven't seen this same phenomenon) and it would seem it is, perhaps in part, due to a less than ideal configuration the part of the manufacturer.

Canonical (the company supporting Ubuntu) speculates that this is a major obstacle in selling Linux netbooks, and offers a Netbook Remix version of the distribution to make tailoring to specific hardware a bit easier for OEMs. At this point, Novell hasn't done this with SUSE -- unless, of course, you consider that using the SUSE source code to produce a Moblin-based netbook distribution (also announced yesterday) is its way of doing so. With the other tools and benefits that Moblin offers OEMs and developers, it's really a rather smart approach that could potentially yield a better netbook experience (for developers and consumers), maximize development resources, and produce quality software in minimal time. I don't think Novell is eschewing SUSE, but in its current form, it's not as suited for netbooks as it is systems like the HP ProBooks. Paired with Moblin's netbook-centric bent and coming from a desktop/server market (rather than a true mobile device background), bringing a SUSE/Moblin system to netbooks has as much potential (if not more) for success as a Android adaptation does.

But InfoWorld is correct that it's still a gamble. There are no netbooks shipping with a Moblin-based system pre-installed. And Novell's outward reticence to support ARM processors in its SUSE products could be a disadvantage (especially in light of Ubuntu's recent addition of ARM architecture support). However, things can change quickly, and while there are no formal plans at present to port the community-driven openSUSE distribution to the ARM architecture, the openSUSE Build Service, recently added to the Linux Foundation Developer Network toolbox, does support cross-compiling for ARM (for numerous distributions and package management systems). Technology changes fast, and the critical aspect is whether the companies powering it are fast enough to keep up.

As Asay says, it's impossible to tell if this will truly pay off. I think this is a wise move, but it's going to have to be the first in a series of wise moves. That, however, is generally how business (and software development) works -- by moving in such a way that the wise moves outnumber the stumbles.