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Intel sets Moblin free at risk of port to rival ARM

Intel Corp. plans to turn over to the Linux Foundation control of Moblin, the Linux operating system it developed for netbooks using its Atom processor.

Setting Moblin free could help attract more interest from netbook makers that have mostly stuck with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP OS to date, and open-source developers who are turning an eye towards the Google Inc.-backed Android smartphone operating system.

It also raises the possibility that Moblin development could be steered toward Nvidia Inc.'s Ion platform, which combines Nvidia graphics with Intel's Atom CPU, or the rival ARM smartphone processor that many are touting as the next big thing for netbooks.

“Nothing restricts any participant in the Moblin open-source project from taking this and putting it on ARM,” Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told Computerworld on Wednesday. “They are willing to let Moblin be used even by their competitors because they feel pretty bullish about their ability to compete. It's a risk/reward that has been proven with other vendors.”

First released by Intel in the summer of 2007, Moblin today runs only on devices and PCs using Intel's Atom or Core 2 CPUs, along with Intel's integrated graphics chips.

A number of OEMs (original equipment manufacturer), including Asus Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and others are already shipping netbooks running Moblin OS, Intel says.

The Moblin open-source project already has “thousands of active developers,” including an undisclosed number of Intel employees, says Doug Fisher, a vice-president in Intel's software and services group.

Under Intel's management, Moblin developers already had the freedom to port the OS to ARM or Nvidia's Ion, Fisher said. However, judging by a search of the Moblin.org site, no such projects exist today.

While a “big percentage” of Moblin's developers are Intel employees, Zemlin expects that to change.

“Intel gets that the most successful open-source projects are those that governed judiciously, where code is based on merit,” he said. Zemlin cited the OpenOffice.org project that has been criticized by IBM and outsiders for Sun Microsystems Inc.'s continued strong grip as “a specific and good example … of what they [Intel] are trying to avoid.”

Though the Linux OS's overall technical head, Linus Torvalds, is an employee of the Linux Foundation, he will have “zero” direct involvement in Moblin, said Zemlin.

Moblin 2.0 is in alpha stage right now. Neither Zemlin nor Fisher would comment on when a final release is expected. Areas of technical focus, include enhancing wireless connectivity, shortening boot time (already under 10 seconds today, said Fisher) and other features that would make netbooks attractive to telecom service operators wanting to offer netbooks at discount to potential subscribers like with cellphones, Zemlin said.

Feature-wise, Zemlin touted Moblin's power efficiency and lower price against Windows XP and Windows 7. Against Android, Zemlin points out that the smartphone OS only runs on ARM processors, and ARM-based netbooks have yet to ship.

Also, Android “comes from a smartphone perspective,” said Zemlin. Translation: it lacks Moblin's ready access to the many apps that already run on Linux PCs.

“Moblin offers a very rich, PC-like experience,” he said.

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