Guest Editorial: Why do Linux MIDs matter to you?

Hi there! I am Daniel Gentleman, better known as ThoughtFix. I’ve been using handhelds, portable Internet devices, and the like since the first Windows CE devices. In addition, I’ve been blogging about mobile technology since December of 05. Recently, I decided to shift gears with my writing and distance myself from Windows based UMPCs and systems in favor for other systems with either Linux or custom embedded operating systems. With over ten years of experience in Linux and in the company of so many good Windows tablet bloggers, I decided my energy would be best focused on these devices. That’s enough about me for now. If you want more, check out
The question of the day: Why should Linux matter to GottaBeMobile readers?

In the first generation of ultra-mobile PCs released in 2005, manufacturers made smaller, low-power versions of the same basic hardware by improving semiconductor technology and reducing overall system power. This new style device runs all the same software (excluding high-powered games) as a full sized Windows computer or laptop. Users could still use their favorite word processor, web browser, Email client, instant messaging client, and even some games. Users quickly discovered the downside of this: While the design of the systems makes them comfortable to hold, the software did not follow suit. Screens either have too little real estate (too few pixels) or the pixels are so tightly packed that the devices were hard to read. Modern software and web pages are designed for systems with large, high-resolution displays. Software toolbars have small icons comfortable for mouse use but difficult for finger or stylus taps. Software is not ready for ultra-mobile PCs and consumers are shy to adopt them.Finally, UMPCs lack the battery life, graphics capabilities, memory, and CPU power of their laptop counterpart causing the already bloated operating system and applications to run yet slower.

Nokia took a different approach to the market with the release of the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. They decided to make a device specifically for the Internet. Included were a browser, chat client, internet radio tuner, and RSS reader. Linux provided the base operating system and a custom development platform (maemo) was provided to the public free of charge. Consumer response to the 770 was, at best, lukewarm. Hackers, however, embraced the mobile Linux platform and cranked out applications, integration options, and other improvements and released them into the public. This impressed Nokia so much that they stuck with the platform and released a more consumer-oriented device: the N800. A more stylish design coupled with vast improvements to hardware and software broadened the market appeal for the Internet Tablets. Although much of the application framework was retooled for the new device, the maemo and Linux core made the transition of applications easy for developers. In interviews, Nokia credited the success of the tablets (twice) to the combination of community involvement and a Linux core. They built the next generation devices (the Nokia N800 and the as-yet-unreleased third upcoming tablet) based directly on community feedback.

When compared to Windows, Linux provides an operating system with much less overhead. Windows has a general core made to support all PCs and a vast array of potential hardware devices. A Linux system can be built to interact specifically with the hardware on which it is shipped. This allows the hardware and operating system to communicate more efficiently and without worrying about compatibility layers, thus creating a machine that runs faster on less expensive equipment.

The disadvantage, of course, is that the software must be either “built” or “ported” to the device. Porting simply means modifying software so it can run on systems other than those for which it was initially designed. Since Linux derivatives have a great deal in common, porting is usually just a matter of modifying the interface and compiling the program to support the new platform. Even so – it has to be done. Additionally, a Linux based internet appliance cannot be expected to have the same software and hardware expansion as UMPCs. While your digital camera may work perfectly when plugged into a UMPC, the same functionality cannot be expected on dedicated Internet devices. Finally, most Linux software (while free) does not have professional technical support available. These devices are embedded systems and the only real support expected should be on the software shipped on the device.

Now we have two potential mobile Internet solutions: Shrink a PC down to where it is mobile yet still usable (a UMPC) or build a non-PC device from the ground up (a MID or Internet Tablet) specifically for mobile Internet use.

Shrinking a PC

  • Advantages
    • Familiar interface
    • Vast commercial software base (supported by the software developers)
    • Vast expansion options and greater likelihood that your device will have compatible drivers
  • Disadvantages
    • Cost of PC class hardware
    • Cost of commercial operating system license
    • Constant compromises in either speed, size, or battery life. 

Building a mobile internet device

  • Advantages
    • All hardware, software, and user interaction built to go together
    • Cheaper hardware and no operating system licensing costs
    • Wide community-based software and support
  • Disadvantages
    • Limitations in function
    • Learning curve for new interface and software
    • Often not as user-friendly as full PCs (either in interface or in application support)

Linux MIDs and tablets are important to the mobile marketplace as they offer a viable alternative to a standard PC. Linux is mature on both x86 (standard PC) CPUs and on embedded, low power consumption ARM CPUs. While UMPCs will be expensive and underpowered for some time, MIDs and embedded Linux tablets will provide a lower cost, higher performance experience for Internet tasks. This is especially important with the growing trend toward Internet-provided applications such as web mail, online office suites like Google Documents, and on-demand entertainment like Rhapsody and YouTube.  While portable Linux embedded devices will not replace the PC entirely, they will certainly offer a viable mobile alternative to a laptop or UMPC.Once the Internet is the only required application, a full PC is no longer needed on the road.