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Did Nokia make the right call?

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Earlier this year, Nokia derailed the MeeGo operating system project it shared with Intel by making Windows Phone 7 the heart of its strategy. This week, developer briefings have been held for both platforms, outlining their latest upgrades (MeeGo 1.2 and WP7 Mango) plus next generation plans. Both are laying claim to be the best OS to integrate the worlds of applications and the web/cloud, though Intel is looking well beyond the handset in its quest for new partners, while Microsoft still refuses to stretch WP7 even as far as the tablet. The question is, will Nokia have reason to regret its choice in future?

MeeGo is highly unlikely to make much impact on Android, iOS or even WP7 in the handset space, but it is one of a group of new-style platforms optimised for the web and cloud services – others include RIM INQ and HP webOS, and, in a more extreme approach, Google Chrome OS. As such, it could appeal to companies developing new classes of devices for the world where wireless is embedded in everything. That shift may give vendors which have a bit-part role in handsets a chance to gain ground, and if MeeGo becomes a vehicle for that shake-up of the market, Nokia could re-evaluate its choices. Looking to new form factors may have been forced on Intel by the Finnish handset giant's defection, but it is also likely to be the making of MeeGo.

After Nokia, the chances for MeeGo

A developer conference for the platform, held on Monday, attracted a larger number of developers than the previous year's session, and the program was looking resolutely beyond Nokia and handsets. Intel was positioning the OS for all kinds of products, from in-car systems to cloudbooks to set-top boxes – anything that would, in future, feature a browser and web connection.

This focus could play to the open, browser-focused strengths of MeeGo, which was created by merging Intel's and Nokia's respective Linux platforms, Moblin and Maemo, in 2010. It will allow Intel to build an ecosystem outside the handset world, rather than engaging in a David and Goliath battle with Android.

It has already started doing this directly in key markets such as China, where it recently set up a joint venture with local internet giant TenCent. It is also harnessing the open-source nature of MeeGo to foster a more organic ecosystem growth and is keen to stress the truly open, Linux-based nature of its OS – which is hosted by the Linux Foundation. Implicitly, this criticises Android, which although built on a Linux kernel, is under Google's tight control. Updates have not been issued simultaneously to all participants in the community, as in true open source, and the OS is now classified as a fork rather than a real Linux platform.

By contrast, MeeGo supports standard virtual machines, and languages like Python, and – as in Linux – its development is carried out by a community whose work is simply orchestrated by working groups. Imad Sousou, director of Intel's open-source technology center, said that this structure means Intel often hears of new MeeGo applications on the grapevine – though it has not let its grip slacken too much in areas of key importance. For instance, the Chinese activities are under its direct control and it participates very actively in the working groups that are most strategic to it, such as connected TV.

A keynote address from Jim Zemlin, head of the Linux Foundation, concentrated on the benefits of the open ecosystem, and he told the audience: As a device maker, you are dramatically expanding your opportunities. You own the platform. You can create your own app stores. You don't have to pay royalties for anyone for it. You can devise your own services on top of it. You are in a totally new game, and a much better game, a game where you can control your future.

Target applications

Zemlin added that the OS was already commercial in embedded systems such as cars, and could have the same disruptive effect on emerging device formats that other Linux variants had on servers, shifting the focus and economics towards the open-source community. "We're really in the first five minutes of a very long game with MeeGo," he said.

However, in these first five minutes, the only sector where MeeGo is almost certain to succeed is in the connected car, where it already has a strong position, and this application took center stage at the conference. In the auto market, Nissan Motor is working on MeeGo-based in-car entertainment systems and other electronics. Nissan said it favoured an open-source platform because it reduced cost and allowed third-party apps to be easily incorporated. Last year, the Genivi Alliance chose MeeGo for its reference standard for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI), supporting navigation, entertainment, location-based services, and connectivity to broadband and auto networks. It is creating an open-source platform for both Intel and ARM systems, with backing from BMW, General Motors and Renault.

"We selected MeeGo as the open-source basis for our platform because it is technically innovative and can provide the cross-architecture build support we require for our references," said Graham Smethurst, president of Genivi, in a statement last July. "Working with MeeGo, we expect to establish a solution that effectively merges IVI needs with those of the other MeeGo target device categories."

Other target markets include connected TVs and tablets, as well as Intel's natural hunting ground of netbooks. This last sector could get a boost as a new generation of ultra-portable, low-power PCs emerges, known as cloudbooks. These will typically have the physical appearance of a netbook but run stripped-down Linux-based OSs with browser user interfaces, entirely geared to web activity.

Recently, Intel and the MeeGo community have set up new working groups dedicated to smart TV and – despite the focus on non-phone devices this week – on handsets. The latter features heavy involvement from ZTE and LG, both expected to support MeeGo in future products, and both looking for their own platform as they struggle to rise above the crowd in the midtier of the Android sector. MeeGo supporters see the working groups as one of their best tools for driving the OS into commercial products and attracting partners, Intel said. Amino Communications is using MeeGo for a set-top box for Telecom Italia, which combines conventional and web TV.

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