Propagating a novel operating system (OS) can often be a frustrating chicken-vs-egg scenario, as many abandoned platforms and even current ones like Linux can demonstrate. An OS won’t gain many converts without a reasonable stream of ready-made applications as well as the necessary ecosystem support (especially device drivers). In open source contexts, this is compounded by Digital Rights Management (DRM) and similar sticky, usually legal, bogeys.
Maintaining a compelling closed ecosystem, such as Apple has chosen with its various OS offerings, certainly goes a long way toward solving those hurdles. On the other hand, Google’s breadth of services, brand recognition and sheer size have quickly carved out secure toeholds for the more open Android and undoubtedly Chrome OS. And there are already several well-established (although shrinking) platforms occupying the rest of the market slots… so where’s the space for upstart MeeGo?
The recent article here rhetorically asked Why MeeGo and that’s not the point today. Rather, I want to cover what’s going on in porting and packaging, and what that might mean for MeeGo’s possibilities.
Porting and Packaging
The porting of software has long been a rite of passage for many fledgling developers. For those on the fringe, this extends beyond applications and into operating systems themselves. Transplanting an OS or application onto foreign hardware is certainly a personal victory for the hacker(s) but it also serves to broaden the potential user base, often dramatically. It can also serve to extend the life of discontinued products.
In some cases the core porting groundwork has already been performed, and getting an open operating system onto a hardware platform is more a matter of packaging, or bundling the necessary OS components via a Package Management System (PMS).
With Intel, ARM and now AMD supporting MeeGo in some form or fashion, the still-immature OS enjoys the broadest level of applicability practically possible. By their open nature, Linux-kernelled operating systems like MeeGo beg pioneering developers to explore the hardware frontier and plant them on any able device. There are currently numerous projects designed around all three major CPU foundries’ offerings.
As of yet there are no MeeGo-specific Intel-based devices although an unknown number are currently slated for 2011 introduction. However, devices running MeeGo on Intel CPUs are already represented. Netbooks had a head start due to MeeGo’s Moblin legacy.
One of the most notable examples is the netbook on which I’m now typing this, the Lenovo ideapad S10-3t. In a textbook example of ecosystem seeding, Intel provided these free, pre-configured with MeeGo 1.1, to all non-affiliated attendees at MeeGo Conference 2010. As I noted afterward, distribution was followed immediately by a frenzy of MeeGo testing, and subsequently, broader development. Perusing the MeeGo forum and searching the bug database turns up many examples. All of this community work is directly ensuring MeeGo stability on the ideapad but much of it can also be leveraged out to Intel-powered appliances in general.
Other Intel-powered devices now running MeeGo are the Samsung NB30 Pro Touch, Acer eMachines 350, and Asus eee 701 2G Surf. Note that support efforts of these and other devices are in various stages of development and some, like the NB30, still require significant work at the time of this writing.
Of course ARM was also represented early, given that the Nokia N900 was positioned as the reference MeeGo handset device. At this time the handset distribution is really immature, and the hope is that we’ll see a significant improvement with the upcoming 1.2 release. That is, after all, around the time a Nokia MeeGo handset is expected.
In addition to the N900, ARM is also represented by the Beagleboard and Pandaboard. Both development platforms are well-supported by their providers and a growing community of innovative hackers. TI has even expressed a desire to get some free Pandaboards into the hands of contributors with novel ideas; more on that in a future article.
Many of us were pleasantly surprised at the first MeeGo Conference last year when AMD’s involvement was announced. Many are still waiting to see what AMD’s contribution of ‘engineering expertise’ will mean, but the importance of their turning the venture into a CPU troika cannot be overstated. In theory, there are now no significant technical walls keeping MeeGo from dominating the mobile landscape.
There is even effort to get MeeGo running on Android devices. Even bolder, a project for porting iOS applications to the OS! Maemo strongly hinted at this sort of hacker wonderland; MeeGo has even greater potential of making it viable.
Android’s gaining on iOS so quickly and easily demonstrates handily that an open approach to operating systems, even one with some caveats, is the better business model these days (for a well-rendered treatise on the subject, read this 2008 ZDNet article). Apple’s preference for tight control of its products and ecosystems creates a highly compelling experience for a certain consumer segment, but ultimately serves to artificially constrain its possibilities.
The ability to port or package a given OS for unintended hardware broadens its appeal and significantly increases its potential, even aiding its development on intended devices. MeeGo’s openness makes it the ideal candidate for cross-platform propagation.
Of course, if any of the wild rumors surrounding Nokia are even remotely true, all of the above could be moot. We should find out something February 11 when freshman CEO Stephen Elop shares a corporate strategy update.
Interested in more on this topic? Check out the MeeGo porting mailing list.