The name Moblin is an abbreviation of 'mobile Linux', and it's a standard platform for those dinky little computers we've been seeing so much of lately.
Fantastic! One standard distribution – just what we always wanted!
That would be great, but it isn't the project's aim. The idea is to produce one open platform that runs on all Intel Atom-based netbooks and mobile internet devices from which developers can produce their own netbook distros.
So what makes Moblin any better than the Linux distribution that comes with my netbook by default?
The aim of Moblin is to make it easier to get the same software across different netbooks, as the machines will all be using the same base.
Netbooks typically run their own hardware and in-house software, and while it's always great to have choice, this makes life difficult for developers, who have to tweak and repackage their product for each netbook on the market.
Standards are all very well, but how will Moblin make my netbook better?
The focus is on what netbook users spend most of their time doing. The interface will be very modern and easy to use, and it will integrate with all the web services you use.
Not only that, but Moblin's does-what-it-says-on-the-tin 'Fast Boot' feature will have devices running on flash or solid-state storage booting in five seconds (and those with IDE/SATA hard disks booting in 10).
My netbook already boots pretty quickly. Will Moblin do anything else?
As well as its custom audio and connection applets, Moblin's priority is security. The project is working to ensure that applications marked as 'unsafe' or 'unknown' are isolated from those you know and trust so that in the event that they go bad they'll be able to cause less damage (this is commonly called application sandboxing).
Though there are already security measures of this kind used within the Linux kernel, the project also wants to ensure that some previously unused functionality is implemented so applications only get access to the files and information they need.
But how will the project manage that?
There's a new security measure added to recent Linux kernel releases named CLONE_ NEWNS, which enables the kernel to create a 'namespace'. When processes from the system's applications enter the namespace, they only have access to the files and processes that the namespace has defined.
This could possibly mean that Moblin will have two major namespaces for 'trusted' and 'untrusted' applications, within which each application can have their own dedicated one. However, though they have decided to use this technology, they have not yet decided how to implement it, so we're really only speculating at this stage.
That makes the whole project seem a little half-baked… surely they're just tweaking the existing Linux kernel and giving it a new name?
It's true that at the moment Moblin is primarily a Linux kernel tweaked for the Intel Atom processor, but its plans are far more wideranging, such as a really attractive framework for GUIs and the ability to integrate all your favourite web services into your desktop environment.
The Moblin team have set up each feature they want as a project and then set those projects goals. Some developers who are then allocated these projects then try to create their own solution, only to find that there is a more elegant way to achieve their aims already provided by the Linux kernel (namespaces, in the case of the application sandboxing).
Web services integrated into the desktop eh? That sounds like Moblin netbooks will offer me easier access to Facebook, Twitter and Tuxradar…
Absolutely – but the software dealing with it (which is called Mojito) is also in alpha. It currently supports Twitter and Flickr, and in future it will enable you to keep track of your internet social life, with aggregation for the more popular social networking sites, photo sharing and any blogs or news sites you wish to follow.
You will then be able to access this information whether or not you are online! This links with an integrated personal information manager (PIM) so you can keep in touch with people over several services.
But I can do this already with my smartphone! Perhaps, but is it easy to write documents, send long-winded emails or attach extra storage space?
Netbooks are small and flexible and can be as specialised as you like! Moblin provides a base for developers to provide applications and support, and that added ease of use will help more people get the most out of their netbooks.
If Moblin is missing all these great features and is still in the alpha stage, then I bet it's really buggy!
The Moblin team is working on some quite significant bugs right now. Moblin uses Anaconda (the same installer package used by Fedora) and runs this fine if you selected 'boot and install' from the boot menu. However, if you select 'boot' from the boot menu and then try to install from a live environment you will be prompted for a root password even though you don't have one!
Wi-Fi also isn't supported on the Asus Eee PC 901. Also, any netbooks running Intel GMA-500 graphics chips are not yet supported. These issues however along with the UI are "under heavy development" to quote the official Moblin site, so though there is plenty of work still to do the future looks very bright for this project.
OK, you've convinced me! I'll install it right away…
Hold your horses! Moblin is still in the alpha stage of development, so you'll be distinctly unimpressed with it at the moment. For instance, most of the software planned is still in development, and most of the apps and libraries aren't included at present.
You also won't get the Moblin UI, as that's also still in development (so you'll just get an Xfce desktop with very few apps). It's also very selective about which systems it will work with, and at present is very slow to boot, because the fast boot improvements are not yet stable enough to include.
It's running Xfce?
This isn't quite the Xfce you know and love. The desktop environment has a mishmash of configuration tools for Xfce and Gnome Mobile, and the only bundled Moblin app is the Moblin browser (which itself is very buggy, and doesn't even render the Mozilla page it automatically loads correctly!).
It also includes interesting desktop effects such as making windows transparent as you drag them and lighting up the task bar when you scroll over it, but this would probably slow down a netbook in real operation.
It also fails to make effective use of the available screen space with the doubling-up of icons and the windows not being maximised when applications are opened.
The only real Xfce apps available for use are MPlayer and Mousepad, with the rest of the items available on the menu being Moblin or Xfce configuration tools. There is also no sign of a package manager yet, so if you want to add extra applications you will have to compile them from source.
So why should I be interested in Moblin over other netbook projects?
Well, it's early days but Moblin shows a lot of promise – and it's backed by Intel. Not many open source projects can say they're funded by a chip giant and gain the benefit of Intel developer contributions.
That's great! Where can I get hold of more information?
Your first port of call should be Moblin's official website at http://moblin.org. From there you can find out more about the project's goals, join the IRC channel and take part in their blogs and mailing lists.
First published in Linux Format Issue 118
Liked this? Then check out 12 handy tips for your new Linux netbook
Sign up for the free weekly TechRadar newsletter
Get tech news delivered straight to your inbox. Register for the free TechRadar newsletter and stay on top of the week's biggest stories and product releases. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register