Hey! You've Got Your Moblin in My Maemo!

Why two good platforms make great sense now, but the clock is ticking.

There have been a number of theories as to why Intel and Nokia decided to united their Moblin and Maemo mobile OS platforms.

Among the best I've heard so far is the speculation that both hardware companies are banding together to fend off Apple's feared domination of the mobile device market. Indeed, as this article from Forbes illustrates, Nokia's partnership with Intel is emulating the success Apple itself had when it started making Intel-based machines.

Another theory from my colleague Sean Michael Kerner over at internetnews.com hits, I believe, is even more accurate: by merging Moblin and Maemo, the Intel-sponsored Moblin gets the benefits of Nokia's Qt toolset. Qt, you might recall, is the library of user interface tools used by a lot of developers in the open source world and is the primary code library for the KDE interface used on desktop Linux.

Kerner examines a little of the background history of mobile Qt against its open-source rival library GTK (the foundation of the GNOME interface), then hits the proverbial nail on the head with his closer:

"Is MeeGo a good thing for the Linux device market then? Sure, it brings together Nokia's significant Qt assets with the established base that Moblin has already gathered. But MeeGo is not about phones--it's about devices."

Which is, to me, exactly right. Because Moblin itself is not, despite some chatter, a current contender for smartphones. Maemo is, though curiously it hasn't been used on a lot of Nokia phones, since the Finnish company has insistently banked on its Symbian operating system (which was just open sourced last week).

Right now MeeGo is positioning itself to conquer the middle-device market, right alongside Apple's iPad. The big distinction is the form: MeeGo devices will continue to have the netbook/laptop form factor (for the time being), while the iPad will take the tablet path. Yes, MeeGo will be applied to other devices, but this one seems to be the most attainable.

MeeGo is a smart move, not just because it's where each platform was heading separately anyway--though that certainly helped. It's smart because the middle market is likely the safest place to be for the time being. Yes, MeeGo will have to go up against Apple, but they won't have to contend with Microsoft, since Redmond effectively tossed in the towel for mid-range mobile devices when it announced the next version of its mobile OS as Windows Phone.

Also, a MeeGo OS will not have to challenge Apple, RIM, and now Google on the smartphone platform, which these three companies seem to have effectively locked up. If there's room for a fourth major OS in there, I'd be amazed. Keep in mind, though, that MeeGo is not completely out of the smartphone game: during the press conference announcing MeeGo, it was revealed that anything developed for MeeGo using Qt would be portable to Symbian.

But MeeGo needs to hurry if it wants to have any hope of succeeding in this market niche, because Google's ChromeOS is coming, supposedly sometime this year. (Google has yet to release a public roadmap or release schedule.) If ChromeOS delivers on its promise, then MeeGo will face a big challenge on the mid-sized device market, as it gets squeezed from Apple and Google on each side. It has a headstart for now, and a fairly mature development infrastructure. More OEM deals with Dell and similar vendors will certainly help, because the more consumer and developer exposure MeeGo can get now, the better chance it has to fend off ChromeOS later.

It's not all doom and gloom for MeeGo: while I think it stands the best chance on the middle range of devices, it's Linux underpinnings give it the flexibility to shift onto other platforms Google, Microsoft, and Apple aren't successful.

One thing's for sure: the clock is ticking.

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