Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MeeGo: Nokia and Intel learn to let go

For years, I was trying to figure out why the world needed two Linux-based tablet operating systems: Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin. Almost three years ago, Intel created Moblin as a fork of Maemo and its Hildon UI (inherited from Symbian).

The reality was that the world didn’t need a forked niche mobile platform, but of course forking is the reality of open source. The changes may be available, but when not invented here and an unwillingness to share control get involved, corporate egos trump the nominal openness of an open source license.

The two factions have been flirting with cooperation but had been unwilling to consummate the deal. On Monday, they finally did.

In an announcement at the European cellphone industry’s global big tradeshow — Mobile World Congress — the two factions announced plans to merge the two code bases. As Nokia’s open source guru reported in his blog:

We’ve been busy with our friends @ Intel.

We decided to expand the relationship we started already last spring. We merge Maemo and Moblin projects into one single project called MeeGo. MeeGo is an open software platform – an operating system – for a wide range of devices. It’ll run on X86 and on Arm based hardware. It will be developed as an open project hosted by the Linux Foundation.

So what does it mean? Many things.

Joint development
We will merge Maemo and Moblin projects. Their architecture is already very similar. They share many components but sometimes use different versions. But they build and integrate releases independently. And while Maemo is for ARM, Moblin is for X86. Now we merge them to get the best of both. A good Moblin build and integration, Maemo’s mobile optimizations and ARM support, Qt etc. We can also now make the bright engineers of Intel and Nokia to work close together.
Of course, the announcement is less about saving R&D engineers and more about combining installed bases, APIs, ecosystems, and third party developers. Neither platform was very interesting on its own, but together the hope is Meego will be the future for both ARM and x86 devices. Both will use Nokia’s QT and Nokia will peddle applications via its (struggling) Ovi store.

More importantly, both Nokia and Intel let go, and turned control over to a neutral broker — the Linux Foundation. LF (like its predecessors OSDL and FSG) has plenty of experience contending with giant corporate egos.

The one thing that seems ambiguous is the positioning vs. the world’s most famous (quasi) Linux mobile platform, i.e. Android. Are sponsors being coy about avoiding comparisons to Android, or is this really an up-market alternative, between handsets and PCs? In an era of iPads and netbooks, will such distinctions remain a year or two from now?

Hat tip: tweeter David Wood, live from Mobile World Congress.

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