The 5-minute guide to the MeeGo mobile OS

30th May 2010 | 09:00

The 5-minute guide to the MeeGo mobile OS

Combine Moblin and Maemo and what do you get?

In the history of stupid names for Linux software, MeeGo tops them all. But what is it exactly?

That's not a very nice thing to say! But yes, MeeGo is an unusual name. OK, it's stupid.

It's a new project that brings together Moblin, a name that you wouldn't call great, but neither was it embarrassing, and Maemo, a name that kept making people disagree over whether it was pronounced Maymo, Maimo or Meemo. Cunningly, MeeGo tops them both in the silly name stakes.

Maybe it's an attempt at a catchy, web 2.0-inspired brand name…

Well no, it isn't. The name itself is quite old in fact. The Linux Foundation registered the meego.com domain over a decade ago. We've no idea what the thinking was behind doing this, but it's been sitting on the trademark for some time now.

Enough about the name. What's this all about? Is there any substance to it?

MeeGo brings together all the awesome work that Intel has done with Moblin, and the work that Nokia did with Maemo.

So before we even start thinking about what new things MeeGo brings to the table, there's already a wealth of software, tools, engineers and documentation from the existing projects.

What exactly does Moblin bring to this new project, then?

Whether you realise it or not, Intel is the company that kickstarted the netbook revolution. All the work that was put in to produce super-cheap devices for the One Laptop Per Child project meant that we had a glut of hardware that could be put together into a cheap laptop – and that became the first netbook.

Intel then followed this up with its Atom CPU, which lowered the cost and raised the energy efficiency even further.

So Intel's main contribution is on the hardware side of things, then?

Well, Intel is a hardware company, to be fair. But Moblin does have a lot of software. You see, something that Apple figured out years ago is that if you want to make people love your hardware, you have to make them love your software too. So Intel put in a huge amount of work to customise and optimise Linux for its hardware.

The result is that its customised Moblin distro boots fast, doesn't require much hard disk space and has a custom user interface, designed to make maximum use of small screens.

Much of that user interface was made with a toolkit called Clutter, which is a GTK-based system that enables fast drawing and cool animations. If you ever used the neat little interface in Ubuntu Netbook Remix, for example, that was Clutter. All Intel's work will be brought into MeeGo.

That sounds great. So what does Maemo bring to the MeeGo party?

Maemo hasn't had quite the same success as Moblin, for a few reasons. Firstly, for a long time it was only available on Nokia's high-end line of 'internet communicators' – that's the Nokia 770, the N800, the N810 and, most recently, the N900. These are great devices, but they're aimed at a niche market, so there aren't many of them out there compared to the number of netbooks.

What's more, for years Maemo was based on GTK with Nokia's own modifications. But a couple of years ago, when Nokia acquired Qt maker Trolltech, it became inevitable that Maemo would switch over to Qt at some point.

So Maemo uses Qt?

Er… no. Despite Nokia's acquiring it in 2008, support for Qt only started to appear in Maemo last year. And having support for Qt doesn't mean the actual system uses it – that's all still written in GTK.

As a result, Maemo has GTK and Qt, which isn't the slim and light approach that seems best for small devices.

If Maemo has GTK and Qt, and Moblin only has GTK, then won't they just standardise on GTK?

You might very well think that, but we couldn't possibly comment…

Oh, go on…

Sadly, instead of standardising on what both distros already have, MeeGo will use Qt for its user interface system.

Does that mean Clutter is dead?

Like we said, all of Intel's work will be brought into MeeGo, and that includes GTK and Clutter. However, the MeeGo project has made it clear that these two are only included for application compatibility – so that existing apps will work – and that the primary toolkit is Qt.

Given that Qt had yet to become the primary toolkit even on Maemo, this doesn't seem like a smart move. But Nokia owns Qt, so presumably it's somewhat obliged to use it.

Surely it's fantastic to have a big firm such as Nokia switch to Linux?

It's always great to have anyone join in our effort, but don't expect to see Nokia roll out MeeGo across all its hardware overnight. Nokia has a huge market share in the lower-end devices – phones with smaller screens, less computing power and lower costs.

So, while having a full-fat Linux distro is a great idea for phones with the latest and greatest hardware, it's not so nice on the kinds of phones that are given away free with a small contract.

I have a phone like that, and I like it – after all, it's a phone, not a web browser or an email client or an MP3 player, or any other stuff I don't want…

Right, and in those scenarios, something like Symbian – the modern descendent of Palm's EPOC operating system, and also owned by Nokia – is probably better. It's open source, and runs on nearly half the smartphones in the world.

What's more, Qt already runs on Symbian devices, which means that with a little bit of effort, MeeGo and Symbian apps are basically compatible.

Does this mean that over time, as phones get more powerful, we'll see more Nokia MeeGo devices appearing in the low-end phone marketplace?

That seems likely, but on the flip side, it's definitely in Nokia's interest to continue the optimisation momentum inherited from Moblin so that MeeGo can work on smaller and smaller devices in the future.

If apps can run on everything from Symbian devices with tiny screens, all the way up to netbooks, how can developers know what to design for?

This is certainly one of the concerns. All models of Apple's iPhone, for example, have a 320x480 screen, which means that all apps look and work the same. With MeeGo, you don't know what screen resolution you'll have or how much RAM there'll be – you don't even know what CPU it'll be running on.

That's an interesting point, but isn't the difference between a 1.6GHz CPU and a 1.8GHz CPU pretty trivial?

That's true, but MeeGo is also designed to work cross-architecture. This means that it'll work on Intel CPUs as well as ARM, which satisfies both Intel and Nokia.

Does that mean that Intel is making software to work on non-Intel CPUs?

Yes it does. We suspect that it probably isn't too happy about doing this, but in the name of co-operation, anything's possible. So Nokia gets to use its user interface toolkit, Intel can use its packaging system, and both companies get CPUs that they're happy with. To be honest, it does feel a bit as though boardroom politics may have influenced some of the technical decisions here.

Hold on, what was that about a packaging system?

Don't forget that it's all Linux behind the scenes, and that means a package manager is used to install software. For Moblin, that was RPM, for Maemo it was APT. They chose one, and it was Intel's, so MeeGo uses RPM.

Oh no!

We're not big fans of RPM either, so this seems a strange choice. Still, for the most part, it'll be hidden from the user behind some sort of app store façade.

Ah, brilliant, so users will be able to get their apps from one central location?

You might well think that there would be a store a bit like Apple's, but…

Oh, you're kidding. You mean there won't be a standard app store?

Sadly, no. Instead of there being one central place where users can get their apps from, Intel will have its app store, called AppUp, which is currently in beta testing. Nokia, in turn, will continue to use its own existing Ovi store.

This all seems like a bit of a mess. Isn't Android going to mop up in the market?

It does have a stronger brand, but the Android world seems to be even more fragmented than MeeGo – there are lots of different devices about, all with different hardware, and all with different software too. Plus, Android support was recently removed from the Linux kernel because no one showed much interest in maintaining it.

Surely, out of all this mess, some sort of competition will emerge?

Free software does seem to work at its best by having a chaotic gloop of primordial SourceForge projects that – somehow – end up being viable and very popular. We're not sure yet whether we'll end up using MeeGo or Android, but, happily, they're both contributing back to the same community. And don't call me Shirley.

And where does all this leave Ubuntu Netbook Remix?

We think Ubuntu is likely to do what it has always done best: sit back, wait for other people to do the work, then take it all, respin it into something awesome and stick a brown colour scheme on top. It's worked in the past, so we think it'll work here too – Ubuntu Netbook Remix could well prove to be more popular than both MeeGo and Android.

Where can I find out some more information about MeeGo?

Somewhat predictably, the information's currently scattered across the Moblin and Maemo sites, with http://meego.com being a bit bare right now. So head over to www.moblin.org and www.maemo.org to get started. All being well, we should see the first software being released in a couple of months' time, and the first devices appearing by the end of the year.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 131

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