Updated: August 7, 2009
Whether you like it or not, the world is becoming more and more of a blur. The classic boundaries of what is and what isn't are getting smeared as technology takes an ever greater grip on our lives. In the olden days, there used to be a PC and then came the laptop. Today, we have notebooks, netbooks, netbooklets, mobile phones, smart phones, all sorts of things that are essentially miniature computers - and people like them.
Thinking globally, I decided to test Moblin, a Linux optimized for the next generation of mobile devices. Alongside Windows Embedded, Google Android and iPhone, Moblin is a strong candidate for low-power machines that are going to flood the market in the coming years, unless the world crumbles.
Moblin is still in the earliest alpha stages, so what you see today may be completely and utterly different from the end result. Still, one day, there's a fair chance you'll be running a Linux distro on one of your mobile devices. Now, let's review Moblin!
Warning: Moblin is still in alpha. Not even a beta. This means do not, under any circumstances, run this software on your production machines.
The official website offers three versions for testing - a live image, a VMware image and a KVM image, all approx. 200MB in size. I tried the live image first. The image booted well.
However, it did not like my CPU vendor, probably because I've booted it in a virtual machine.
No matter. I downloaded the VMware image and used it instead. The image is approx. 900MB in size when expanded and configured to boot with 512MB RAM.
The image has a simple GRUB menu and boots in approx. 30 seconds to a simple Xfce desktop, with an interesting wallpaper. The fast boot time will be appreciated by speed connoisseurs.
The bottom panel highlights to a lighter shade of gray when the mouse cursor hovers over it and all inactive windows are transparent, adding a touch of sophistication to a simple and lightweight desktop.
One of the things that really interested me was the memory footprint. This is something that is definitely going to appeal to users with weak machines or vendors planning small, efficient devices. Without running any other application, the memory usage was less than 128MB, which is good, considering that some resources are pre-allocated.
In general, Linux, as an operating system featuring monolithic kernel, is rather well suited for machines with low specs, be they tiny laptops or palm devices or phones. Windows 7, although better than Vista, will have an extremely hard time competing with leaner and meaner UNIX-based operating systems for the bottom end of performance requirements. While hard disk space may not be that much of an issue, power consumption, heating and battery life will be critical.
Multimedia is an important part of the modern and future Web. Small, mobile devices are no longer limited by tiny storage space and can easily accommodate a handsome collection of movies, songs and games. As these devices become ever more network aware, with built-in modems and wireless antennae, the emphasis on media grows stronger yet.
Mobile devices are expected to be able to handle the noisy and flashy bits of the Web too, including streaming in real time and online games, usually Flash or Java based.
Flash yes, sound no
The default Moblin alpha does not have a Flash Player installed, but installing from an archive solved the problem. There was no sound though, which is not that surprising, considering this is alpha and the fact it ran in a virtual machine with unsupported generic audio drivers. Even though Moblin is intended to run as far away from virtual machines as possible, supporting the basic subset of generic drivers is always a bonus.
Totem could not play MP3 songs and I found no way to install the missing codecs. The right repositories are not available yet.
To pull Shock The Monkey across the network, I had to use the smbclient utility. It is not installed by default, but adding was a simple affair. Then, I had to resort to a bit of command line to connect to the Windows machine and download the file using the get instruction. Not a user-friendly action, GUI would be much preferable. The File Manager has no shortcut for network locations.
And the file residing in the home directory:
Moblin has a modest yet useful collection of programs. Media wise, Totem is a sound choice. As we've already seen with Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex, it also supports streaming of BBC podcasts and Youtube movies directly inside the player.
The plugin is available in the default repository, however Totem could not enable it. I believe this is definitely an alpha issue, as we've already seen Totem do this well.
Apropos updates, Moblin has a simple and friendly software management system, based on yum. Finding the right programs is a very simple thing. Moblin features an Add/Remove utility, which is similar to what many modern distros offer today.
For instance, in my quest for MP3 codecs, I stumbled upon TagLib, a library for reading meta data of popular media formats.
Other than that, Moblin comes with Minefield:
The office applications suite is a simple collection of three utilities: Contacts, Tasks and Dates.
As said earlier, Moblin also tries to please with some simple, yet pleasant Xfce effects, like transparent windows:
You can also change the behavior of your desktop, using the numerous hacks and tweak of the Xfce desktop manager, like the Splash Screen Settings, for instance:
Moblin is still too young to judge too accurately. However, so far, it seems like a decent beginning of a great project. Lots of work needs to be done yet.
So far, it is quite interesting. On the good side, the boot is very fast. Currently, it takes about 30 seconds, but the ultimate goal of Moblin is under five! The memory consumption is also very low. There were no stability issues. The desktop is simple, yet functional and pretty is a plain, soothing kind of way. You can have Flash working in about 2 minutes. Software updates are also quite easy.
On the bad side, the networking and multimedia support still need polishing. Moblin's modest size also means a small default collection of programs, although these can be quickly replenished using the Add/Remove utility. Some functionality is still lacking or deliberately disabled, marring slightly the feel of certain programs.
I could not test the support for Wireless, Bluetooth and other hardware on real computers as I refrain from booting alpha builds on production machines, so this is something I will have to postpone until the first beta or so.
Overall, Moblin seems like an interesting project. Linux-wise, it is not that different from many other small distros, however it aims at a completely different segment of the market, where the competition is going to be rough and tough. I'll be looking forward to seeing this baby grow.
P.S. Thanks to Raji for his suggestion on testing Moblin!