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Novell is swearing its oath of fealty to the Moblin variant of Linux for mobile computing devices, based on Intel's Atom low-powered processors and, soon with the Moblin 2.0 release, netbooks.

Intel launched the Moblin project back in July 2007 and got Moblin 1.0 into the field in April 2008, concurrently with the launch of the Atom processors. These are cut-down variants of the old Pentium-style processors that consume very little electrical power (4 or 8 watts in the current 1.6 GHz single-core and dual-core chips) and yet provide enough computing power to be useful in many kinds of devices.

The original Moblin project was based on the Ubuntu Linux kernel, itself a variant of Debian Linux. Last July, Intel tweaked the project to include a kernel derived from Red Hat's Fedora development Linux and a subset of its Gnome application stack. The pre-alpha Moblin 2.0 release came out in January. (This wasn't pitched as being pre-alpha or even alpha code, but this is apparently the case.)

Despite its Ubuntu and Fedora heritage, Novell seems to be thrilled to be backing Moblin 2.0, which Guy Lunardi, director of client preloads at the commercial Linux distributor, says will be announced as an alpha today and which is expected to begin a normal beta testing schedule in a few weeks.

The exact scheduling of the beta program is a work in progress right now, because the Linux Foundation - the place where Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, gets his paycheque - took over the steerage of the Moblin project from Intel earlier this month.

The chip maker has figured out that it is difficult to get original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs) who design, build, and resell all manner of computing devices to back a project when it is vendor controlled. And despite Intel's goal to have Moblin promote its Atom low-powered processor, it seems extremely likely - one might say inevitable - that if Moblin is to survive as a viable project for embedded and mobile computing devices, then it will probably have to support ARM and PowerPC chips, too. And maybe MIPS chips as well. But thus far, neither Novell nor Intel have talked about that prospect. But that is what independence from Intel means.

This may come out in a few weeks when the Moblin project releases its first product roadmaps in the wake of Linux Foundation taking it over. For the moment, Moblin is using an internal build system created by Intel and is doing nightly builds on Moblin 2.0, but according to Lunardi, this software does not have a desktop interface or its application stack finalized as yet.

Novell is now contributing code to the Moblin project, adding in code for windowing, email and media management from its openSUSE development project, and said today that it will create a Moblin-based "product" for netbooks that it will peddle to OEMs and ODMs. This product will not, according to Lunardi, carry an Intel or Novell brand, but will instead allow these OEMs and ODMs to weave their own brands into the code and basically insulate the user from even knowing they are on any particular operating system.

Novell is also setting up something called Open Labs in Taiwan, working in conjunction with Intel and the Taiwanese Institute for Information Industry, which have already set up the Taiwan Moblin Enabling Centre, to validate Atom/Moblin products.

Taiwan is key for two reasons. One, a large percentage of cell phones, handhelds, nettops, netbooks, and laptops are manufactured in the country. This means there is a huge community of OEMs and ODMs that are looking at chips and operating system platforms for computers that don't fit the usual desktop and laptop PC definitions. Moreover, back in early March, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp inked a deal with Intel that allows it to create customized versions of the Atom chip.

With a truly free Moblin operating system and customizable Atom processors, there is a better chance that OEMs and ODMs as well as other providers of embedded computing devices will take a harder look at Moblin.

It is harder to see what Novell gets out of Moblin until you realize that OEMs and ODMs don't want to manage the updating and patching of Moblin or the optimization of the operating system for particular kinds of devices. So Novell is pitching its online Yast Update tools as part of the Moblin product it will put together. But don't expect to see a SUSE Linux Enterprise Mobile distro. Novell seems content to work behind the scenes for now. ®

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