Linux on the move: the future of portable distros

25th Jan 2010 | 12:15

Linux on the move: the future of portable distros

What to expect from Moblin, Android, Chrome OS and more

It's not all about netbooks

Over the last 12 months, netbook and mobile Linux has made massive advances in features and install base. This is primarily thanks to two netbook distributions – Moblin and Canonical's Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR).

Both have built on the massive potential that was unlocked by the Asus Eee PC but led nowhere, as its operating system failed to inspire a new generation of Linux users.

There's a new breed of netbook distro that's aiming to change this perception and take the fight for the perfect mobile platform back to the manufacturers.

Netbooks aren't the only portable platform where there's innovation to be found: there are millions of mobile phone users completely oblivious to the fact that their devices are powered by Linux. And that's just the way it should be. But there's a growing number for whom it will become increasingly important, whether that's through Android or Nokia's latest gadget.

We're going to document the current state-of-the-art in mobile Linux, and uncover the innovation and the technology that has enabled recent developments to happen. And we're going to start with netbooks, as these desirable items are becoming increasingly important.

Ideally, a netbook OS needs to take into consideration three things: the limited amount of screen space that these devices typically have, the need for applications to be quick and responsive, and fact that these devices have to last as long as possible without being connected to a power source. And this is exactly what both Moblin and Canonical's UNR have been designed to accomplish.

The Moblin advantage

Moblin's great advantage, and the reason why it's been such an important development for the Linux netbook platform, is that it started life as an Intel project (it's now under the guardianship of the Linux Foundation), and Intel makes the hardware that the vast majority of netbook devices use.

This meant that the company had an unparalleled knowledge of the inner workings of these devices and also had the opportunity to make them work to the best of their capabilities by adding drivers and various other components to the Linux kernel.

Despite all the work that has been done in the background for Moblin, it's the user experience that most people will judge this distribution on.

Moblin uses a toolbar that scrolls down from the top border of the display, and from this, you can launch any of Moblin's apps, including a Mozilla-based web browser, an instant messenger client, media player and home screen.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Canonical put a great deal of effort into developing Ubuntu Netbook Remix, pulling massive boot speed improvements, power management code and a new window manager into the standard Ubuntu distribution. It also makes good use of recent additions to Ubuntu, including the Ubuntu One cloud storage system and the Empathy instant messenger, which makes good use of the limited screen sizes on these devices.

But the best thing about UNR is the breadth of packages available. You can install anything that any other Ubuntu user can, which is a massive advantage if you look at the tiny selection available for Moblin.

UNR has been tried and tested on the Intel Atom platform that most netbooks use at their core, so you should expect better battery life and reliable suspend and resume, for instance.

One thing we don't like about the latest release of UNR is the installation routine. Canonical has tried to make things easier by only distributing UNR 9.10 as an ISO image that needs to be burned on to a CD. But of course, netbooks don't have optical drives.

To get around this, Canonical wants you to use its USB Creator application. We had little success getting this to work on a couple of Ubuntu based distros, and had to resort to the Windows version that can be found in the root directory of the ISO – which means you need to mount it first, somehow. On Windows, you will also need Python 2.6 installed.

By comparison, Moblin is provided as an IMG file, the same as UNR used to be, and this can be copied using dd on the command line. It takes a long time, and it's more technical than it should be, but because you have control of the block size with the bs argument (we used bs=1024), the writing process shouldn't fail. We'd love to see Canonical providing both packages.

Mobile Linux on netbooks and desktops

Here's what makes a netbook distribution different from an ordinary distro

Perhaps the most impressive aspect to Moblin in particular is its boot speed, because a netbook has to boot quickly.

It's a device that's going to be routinely turned on and off, opened and closed. It needs to present a desktop with a working internet connection fast enough for people to look up train times, local restaurants and cinema listings without having to resort to their mobile phone.

Fortunately, the unified nature of the Atom platform is a significant advantage for netbook distro builders. It means they can optimise boot speeds knowing the exact capabilities of the hardware. This is a luxury that general Linux distributions don't have.

Instead, they have to play it safe by bundling support for as many different variations in configuration as they can, and this still causes problems.

Fast boot

But Atom-based netbooks don't have the same problem, and this is exactly why Moblin and UNR have been able to make improvements to boot speed.

Instant messenger

The Moblin team have been extremely vocal in their belief that they can dramatically reduce the time it takes for a netbook computer to get from post BIOS to a fully operational environment. They've also said that there's no single Linux system that needs to be improved.

Getting a faster boot speed means looking at the whole booting system, which is exactly what they've done. This initiative for Moblin was dubbed the 'fast boot' project, and it was widely reported that Intel felt a 2-second boot time was a realistic goal.

It has yet to accomplish this particularly milestone, but the fast boot changes have made a dramatic improvement in boot speed. But there's no magic piece of optimisation that can suddenly turn a slow-booting netbook into a fast-booting one. There are so many things going on when your computer boots that overhauling a single application won't make that much difference.

Instead, the Moblin team had to look at everything that happens between the moment you press the power button and the moment you log in to your desktop, and that meant looking through the code for everything from the boot manager and the graphics drivers to the window manager and desktop environment.

Process management

As Moblin software engineer and fast-boot troubleshooter, Arjan van de Ven puts it: "Fast boot is not a specific piece or a few pieces of technology. It is largely about how you put the OS together… there are a few pieces of optimisation, but that is almost secondary."

To accomplish this, the Moblin team looked very closely at what was happening at boot time, what was being launched and when, before playing around with everything from compiler flags to configure options in every package loaded at boot time.

Running certain processes asynchronously also helps, such as the USB probing routines. But surprisingly, the kernel itself is only a small part of the whole routine, and as a result it has received only a few patches from the Moblin team to enhance boot speed.

Many of the components required for booting are already built into the kernel image, rather than as external modules. This is also part of the reason why Moblin can't support the Celeron processor, as used in the original Asus Eee PC 701, as the some of the instructions used to optimise performance are Atom-only.

Even the X server can't escape, with several operations disabled, duplicate saved hardware states removed and UXA acceleration enabled by default. These options are only possible because Moblin knows the hardware capabilities of the netbook device.

Canonical is also heavily involved with the Moblin initiative, bundling its own Ubuntu-themed Moblin edition alongside its UNR offering, and it has also been closely monitoring Moblin development for clues on how it can improve its general distribution's performance.

Despite the fact that Moblin uses the Sysvinit initialisation daemon to manage boot processes while and Ubuntu uses Upstart, many of the boot speed improvements that have been made to Moblin have also been made to UNR, and as a result both distributions have made big improvements.

Moblin is still winning, but Canonical's Scott James Remnant, who has looked at the two systems in detail, reckons that they can pull Ubuntu's boot time into the 10-second ballpark for the next release.

Design

After rapid booting, the second thing you're likely to notice when you start your netbook is the user interface. Both Moblin and UNR have tried very hard to morph the standard Linux desktop into a more mobile-friendly amount of screen space, and they've used different tactics with varying degrees of success.

With Moblin, the key to this transformation is the Clutter toolkit. This is the graphical framework that Moblin uses to create most of the individual UI components on the screen. It includes the small graphical animation that occurs when you roll your cursor over the icons in the toolbar, as well as handing the way windows scroll in and out of view and the thumbnail view used for application switching.

Moblin has taken many well known GTK-based applications, and pushed these into the Clutter toolkit, giving most of the desktop a much more unified and homogeneous look than other Linux distros. It also means that these applications will fit easily into the small screen, and sometimes their layout needs to be adjusted to compensate.

This has been taken to a new level with the Moblin-specific applications that are part of the default desktop, and in particular, the integrated web browser.

Baby browsers

The browser is likely to be the most used component of a netbook, and the Moblin browser has been designed to make the best possible use of the available screen space. This means it is always maximised and is also integrated into the applications panel.

Clicking on this will fill the page with your most visited sites, and clicking on any of these will open the browser. The browser is based on Mozilla, and includes Flash support by default. Pages can be opened on a new tab, and the tab bar fits snugly beneath the address bar at the top of the window.

Clutter has also been used to good effect in the contacts page. This is an instant messaging portal that's automatically connected whenever you connect to a network, and it lists your online contacts within a Clutter panel and lets you initiate conversations from the same screen. If you receive messages while using another application, the Contacts icon in the launch bar will display an exclamation mark.

The biggest change for UNR compared with Ubuntu is the way it looks. Canonical has created a large icon-based launch system that apes the same menu layout and contents as its general desktop distribution, while making its features easier to use from a netbook's smaller display and input devices.

Ubuntu apps

Canonical's UNR doesn't use anything as revolutionary as Clutter, but it does bundle several distinct technologies unique to its netbook distribution. The most important is called Maximus.

This is the window manager responsible for the full-screen mode used by most UNR applications, and it enables these application to make the most use of the limited screen space without overlapping the application bar at the top of the screen.

Unlike Clutter, applications don't have to be hard-coded to work with Maximus. The window manager is a drop-in replacement for Gnome's default, and this means it works just as well as KDE's window manager, for example.

There are more uses for a stripped down distro than just your netbook

Netbooks use standard x86-based hardware. The result is that most Linux distributions will run on them unmodified, and you can also run a netbook specific distribution such as UNR on a normal desktop machine or a laptop – but you can't install Moblin.

It's a distribution that's too tied to the Intel Atom platform on which it operates, and there are just too many kernel-specific options and optimisations in the system for it to run on generic hardware. This is the same reason why it won't install on older Asus Eee PCs, for example.

But Moblin also wouldn't be as attractive without the accelerated graphics and superior power management that come with the default hardware combination. You might ask why you would even want to run a distribution designed for smaller hardware on a normal machine.

For normal users, it's true that you're probably better off sticking to the mainstream versions of OpenSUSE, Fedora or Ubuntu. You'll have proper hardware support and a better selection of applications. But if your uses are limited, and so is your hardware, a slimline netbook distribution could be the perfect upgrade.

There are still people using 800x600 displays in a world where 1920x1080 is becoming a new standard, for instance. A netbook distro might also be a good choice for your family, or for other machines you have to maintain. A netbook distribution will be configured for usability and all the main functions are easily accessible, and they're also relatively secure.

UNR 9.10 vs Moblin 2.1

Usability

If improved usability is your main concern, you can do a lot worse than choose UNR or one of its derivatives. The large icons used by the application launcher and the low resolution of the default applications would be ideal for those with impaired vision or limited input mobility.

As UNR is really just a series of additional packages built around Ubuntu, it will also work on the same vast array of hardware, from the oldest supported by the kernel to the newest devices. Unlike some of the other netbook distributions available, UNR will also install without too much difficulty.

UNR word processor

This is because UNR is distributed as an ISO disc image. It just needs to be burned on to a disc, which is then inserted into the destination machine. Most other netbook distributions prefer the flash image format, IMG, which isn't as versatile if you don't have a USB flash drive, and it can also be rather difficult to create the appropriate boot media.

If you've used Ubuntu, UNR looks different but operates in exactly the same way. Many of the bundled applications are identical, and other than the new title bar and the change in theme, they'll work in exactly the same way.

More importantly, the big advantage it has over Moblin is that you can install all the same packages you can from a normal Ubuntu installation using the Synaptic package manager, which is probably the best reason for using it.

We pit the big two netbook distros against one another in a race!

We interpreted speed as how quickly the machine boots, how long it takes to establish a wireless internet connection, suspend and resume speeds, as well as general performance and battery life, and we've tested both distribution on the same machine.

It's a Samsung NC10 with 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive, connected to the same wireless network while plugged into power. Both distributions work well on this device, although we had to update the BIOS for the screen brightness control to work, and Moblin fails to offer a GUI for this.

Both our series of tests were conducted from a cold boot, and we took the timings from the moment we selected the OS from the Grub menu.

Suspend/resume

To measure the time it took to suspend the machine, we waited for the power light to start flashing. With Moblin, the screen went dead instantly and it took a few extra seconds for the hardware to close down and enter suspend mode.

On UNR, we could see the screen and watch the audio being muted followed by the wireless connection being dropped before suspend mode was triggered at almost exactly the same time.

This housekeeping is perhaps why UNR is a little faster at restoring the desktop and reconnecting to the wireless access point than Moblin, although there was some variation in the UNR results, with the fastest wireless resume coming in at under 20 seconds.

We had expected the suspend and resume times to be almost identical, and it's remarkable that both desktops were back up and running in under five seconds, with UNR posting a particularly impressive speed. It's also clear that the the biggest bottleneck is waiting for the wireless radio to negotiate a new connection, as both systems spend about the same amount of time waiting for an internet connection.

Moblin is dramatically quicker at booting, even though the wireless connection is delayed, and you can see why Canonical has been watching Moblin development very closely, and why both distributions are promising further improvements.

It's also noteworthy that the UNR desktop appears with a working wireless connection immediately, whereas we have to wait for Moblin to make the same leap, which shows that UNR is performing certain tasks at the same time. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Moblin is faster to the desktop?

The only test where we couldn't pick a winner between the two distributions was battery life, as they both gave roughly the same results. In normal, low-power command line usage, we got around 5.5 hours out of each netbook, while continually running the BBC's iPlayer gave us around 2.5 hours of playback.

Results

Test results

Linux on mobile phones

Alexander Graham Bell never thought phones would turn out like this…

The first device that really caught our attention was Trolltech's Greenphone. It ran an embedded version of Linux and provided an API for programmers to get stuck into and develop their own applications for the new platform. It never really took off, but then the motives for Trolltech doing this have always been somewhat unclear.

It wasn't long after its release that it announced all the stock had been bought and that the project had come to the end of its life. And it wasn't long after this that Nokia intervened and bought Trolltech…

Maemo

Nokia has long been experimenting with embedded Linux systems, via its Maemo platform. We've reviewed these devices in the past, and they each had beautiful and responsive touchscreens, alongside an accessible GTK-based graphical front-end. The only thing these devices were really missing was mobile phone functionality, which always seemed an incongruous omission.

Soon after Nokia bought Trolltech it was announced that Qt would be ported to Maemo, which we're still looking forward to. But the big announcement for Linux-based Nokia devices is the N900, a smartphone that combines the latest generation of the Maemo platform with phone functionality.

Nokia n900

It has 3D acceleration and multi-touch, and can perform SIP and Skype calls out of the box. It also comes with an open API that developers can use to build their own applications, and these can be sold on Nokia's own app store, called Ovi Store. It's Nokia's great hope in the battle to defeat Apple's iPhone, and it's a testament to how far we've come that it's built around the power and community offered by Linux.

Android

Of course, there's one particular mobile phone operating system that has done a great deal to change attitudes towards Linux as a mobile platform, and that's Android. It's not particularly because it's any better to use or that it has more applications available, or that developers can get stuck in without selling their souls – it's because it was designed and developed by Google.

This has given it an amazing amount of publicity, and positions the Android platform alongside Apple and Microsoft in the world's media. There are now dozens of phones that either use Android now or will in the future.

In the UK, the highest profile are those offered by T-Mobile, the Hero and the G1. Both are manufactured by HTC, a prolific company that builds Windows Mobile devices with similar specifications.

But there are also a great number of devices from Motorola, including the wonderfully named Motorola Morrison and the much hyped Motorola Droid. This seems to be the current darling of the Google stable, as it's the only Android phone judged powerful to run its new turn-by-turn navigation from Google Maps.

But the best news is that many of these companies are part of the Open Handset Alliance, a group aiming to bring open standard to the mobile phone market. It seems the combination of Linux and Android is unbeatable.

The future is Chrome

The future's bright. The future's shiny. The future is Chrome

With the 2.1 release of Moblin, many mainstream distributions have started looking at creating their own versions of Moblin and making these as their netbook contribution. The first distribution we've seen to make the leap to Moblin inclusion was Mandriva.

Its 2010 release packages the full Moblin environment alongside the usual fayre of Gnome and KDE. Installation is as simple as searching for the task-moblin metapackage and installing the result.

Messenger

From what we've seen of it, Mandriva's Moblin differs very little from the standard version. Both the themes and the default package selection are identical.

But you do have the enormous advantage of being to install other Mandriva packages on your netbook, even if they're not going to be able to use the Clutter features of Moblin or look like typical Moblin applications.

Hot on the heels of the Mandriva release, the Fedora team has also been able to integrate Moblin into its latest release – Fedora 12. This is something of a return to its roots for the Moblin project, as it was initially based on Fedora distribution.

It also means that there should be better integration between the original Moblin packages and any new ones offered by Fedora, as both distributions are closely matched and inherit some of the same configuration files and layout.

Not to be outdone, OpenSUSE is also bundling Moblin into its main distribution tree, and there are community packages you can install for the last couple of releases. But rather than make it available for general consumption, Novell would rather sell its Moblin integration to netbook manufacturers directly.

Even more Ubuntu

As UNR is built on Ubuntu, it's highly likely that we'll see almost as many UNR respins as we have for the parent distribution. We've already seen one example in Jolicloud, and we'd put money on many community distributions, such as Linux Mint or Crunchbang offering a UNR overhaul alongside their standard desktop installations.

It's also likely that Canonical will be able to forge stronger relationships with companies like Dell, which is already shipping a specific version of UNR on its Mini 9 platform. As Windows XP is phased out and the cost of bundling Windows 7 rises, manufacturers will be looking for a cheap and easily maintainable netbook OS, and UNR fits the bill admirably.

Chrome OS

Google Chrome OS is Google's long-promised netbook distribution, which is being designed as the perfect platform for Google's growing library of online applications and services. Its release was described by Google Software Engineer Martin Bligh as a foundation rather than a fully functional operating system, and the plan is to have it ready for this time next year.

Chrome OS currently includes user interface experiments and some initial designs for ongoing development. The official blog describes these components as a sketch that will be coloured in over the next year.

To all of us here at LXF though, it's just the Chrome web browser running in full-screen mode. That said, there are some features that Google obviously wants to emphasise.

There will be no conventional desktop applications, with all facilities provided through the Chrome browser. Security has also been a big issue: each session will run as a sandbox, isolated from all other sessions. .

But the most important feature is speed. Google claims that its operating system will take you from boot to login in seven seconds, which gives Moblin and UNR something to think about, especially if that includes wireless initialisation. It could also be the reason why Google intends to ship its OS on specific devices, and not make it available for general consumption.

However it turns out though, you don't need a time machine to know that when Google takes a project like this seriously there are going to be serious implications and exposure for Linux.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 290

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