Grant McWilliams

Tech Gadgets Blog Open Mobile Linux History

Open Mobile Linux History

Due to the fracturing of the  (remaining)  open mobile platforms I thought I'd do a brief history and where they've ended up now. When I refer to open mobile platforms I primarily mean Linux based mobile operating systems, most of which come from one tree - Maemo.

The Early Years of the MID

Maemo is/was largely an unrestricted Debian based Linux operating system. There was no reason to "root" it as we have to with other Mobile Operating systems outside of just installing a package and typing sudo gainroot. From that point on you could treat it like any other Linux platform.


Nokia named this OS2005 (Mistral) starting the yearly mobile OS release pattern. A year later OS2006 (Scirocco/Gregale) came out improving performance and allowing it to access 2 GB memory cards. Both of these operating systems were used on the Nokia n770 MID. OS2007 (Bora) was released for the n800, arguably the first usable MID from Nokia. I had an n800 and used it for several years. The OS would remind a lot of people of Ubuntu's Unity desktop, although not as irritating.

The Late Years of the MID

OS2008 (Maemo 4 - Chinook) was released on the new Nokia n810 but also worked on the n800 if you wanted to install it (I did). Maemo 4 was a much more matured product which also switched out the Opera web browser for a cut down version of Firefox (MicroB). Maemo 4.1 (Diablo)  was released as Diablo and offered as an upgrade to OS2008. This included the ability to update the OS without reflashing and a WiMax stack for the n810 WiMax device that didn't survive long because the WiMax network was virtually non-existent.

I owned both an n800 which I upgraded from OS2007 to OS2008 and eventually Diablo. I also owned an n810 although at that time I was getting ready to move onto a more powerful device that would give me Internet all the time - a smart phone.

 

Open Smart Phones

Maemo 5 (Fremantle) was released on the Nokia n900 smart phone and had a completely redesigned user interface. It looked less like a computer desktop and more like a mobile device interface. It did however, still have a real Debian based operating system underpinning it. Nokia bought the QT interface system and announced they were moving all platforms to it. All previous versions of Maemo used Hildon (GTK) so Maemo 5 shipped with the QT libraries included although they weren’t really used for anything. This meant Maemo 5 could run QT applications.

I own an n900 and love the hell out of it. I don't have apps for Yelp or some of the other things I need but I do have a real ssh terminal, Xchat, rsync and most anything else I want. The multitasking on it is amazing and more powerful than virtually any other Mobile OS platform. Overall it's a great little operating system.

Maemo 6 (Harmattan) was a Debian based OS released on the Nokia n9/n950 mobile phones with an entirely new interface. At this point Nokia had decided that teaming with Intel to create one Linux based mobile platform was a great strategy. This merging of Nokia's Maemo and Intel's Moblin was named MeeGo. Confusingly enough Nokia labeled Maemo 6 - MeeGo 1.2.  Maemo 6 moved the interface to QT which opened up a lot of mobile apps because Symbian also used QT. I would buy a Nokia n950 in a heartbeat if I could find one. It was released only for developers. I may buy an n9 anyway.


The Death of Maemo

With Maemo 6 (Harmattan) Nokia started using the MeeGo label even though it was really Maemo underneath. The official MeeGo spec existed and used a Redhat package based Linux distribution as it’s base. Maemo 6 (Harmattan) was clearly a Debian based revision of Maemo.

MeeGo
MeeGo was announced by Nokia and Intel in 2010. The real MeeGo also existed at the time Nokia released Maemo 6 (Harmattan) but wasn’t ready for production. The merging of Maemo and Moblin set back the release of MeeGo by at least a year, some say two.

MeeGo was a very aggressive movement that was going to be THE mobile platform for everything from phones, entertainment systems, handsets, netbooks, tablets and in-vehicle-entertainment. Underneath would be the same MeeGo operating system using different graphical interfaces. The Netbook interface was basically Intel’s Moblin. The Smartphone interface was all new (and not the interface Nokia developed for Maemo 6 (which they dubbed MeeGo too).

MeeGo continued the use of QT as it’s graphical interface and used RPM as it’s package format. The last version of MeeGo released was (confusingly again) version 1.2. The official MeeGo 1.2 has very little to do with Nokia’s MeeGo 1.2.

 

Update: I bought a Nokia n9 with MeeGo on it and have been using it for the last year. The gesture based interface is nice, the screen is gorgeous and the OS overall works very well although I think it was probably pushed out the door too early as it's not as rock solid stable as the n900 was. It's even more vertical oriented like a phone should be and doesn't have a keyboard which is an issue for me. My two biggest issues with it have been the lack of keyboard and a bug in the system that keeps it from recognizing when the headphones are plugged in or not. Someone made a app that hacks the state of the headphone jack so I can go back and forth between music and phone. Although the n9 is fairly well built it's not to the same tank quality that the n900 was. In one year of use (and unknown bumps) the camera stopped working. The n900 went through several years of severe abuse before something broke.


The Death of MeeGo

Nokia hired a former Microsoft guy named Stephen Elop as it’s CEO. Elop decided that it would be in Nokia’s best interest to kill off MeeGo and Symbian smartphone operating systems and adopt Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.  At this point Symbian had 22% of the cell phone marketshare, Windows Mobile had 3%. Symbian though, was on a downward spiral as it had 73% in 2006. In those 5 years it had lost 50% to Android and Apple’s iOS. Nokia before Elop planned on MeeGo taking over the torch. Nokia after Elop planned on offering ONLY Windows Phone devices.  Nokia’s stock went from $10 in early 2011 to $3 in late 2012.

Nokia started work on yet another Linux based Mobile platform called Meltemi to replace low end series 40 smartphones which they sold 1.5 billion of. In 2012 Nokia laid off the Meltemi development group and canceled Meltemi. All non-Windows mobile operating systems are now dead at Nokia.

After Nokia’s announcement Intel immediately responded with a message pledging its support for MeeGo. Several months later after realizing they haven’t written one single line of decent software in decades they realized they were in trouble and canceled MeeGo.


Open Mobile Linux Phone Branches

The first open Linux mobile platform LiMO (which went mostly nowhere) changed it’s name to Tizen in 2011.

Samsung the second largest manufacturer of phones after Nokia and lover of every operating system on the planet wants to better control it’s destiny so enters into a deal with Intel to develop -
Tizen. Tizen will have a lot of MeeGo and LiMO underneath but use HTML5 as it’s graphical Interface. A bunch of companies sign on to produce Tizen devices just like they did for Symbian and MeeGo. Supposedly the first devices come out Q1 2013. Last year they said Q2 2012. We’ll see.

Samsung announces that applications created for it’s other open source mobile OS -
Bada will work on Tizen. Bada is reportedly based on BSD but I don’t know much more.


The open source
Mer project which had focused on bringing Maemo 5 to Maemo 4 devices changed it’s focus to continuing the development of MeeGo.  Mer should be considered MeeGo core only and will be used as the foundation for other Open Mobile devices.

Nemo Mobile is one such project.
Nemo uses Mer as the core and the user interface is based on MeeGo Handset.

Plasma Active a KDE group uses Mer as the foundation for it’s mobile OS. Plasma Active gained fame for being the OS of the Spark Tablet which due to legal issues was renamed the Vivaldi tablet. There were issues with the Chinese manufacturer changing the hardware and then not offering the kernel source code for it. Thus the Vivaldi tablet never made it into production. You can however, make your own Vivaldi Tablet by buying a Zenithink C71 Android Tablet and install Plasma Active on it. The C71 is no longer available and there's no garauntee that Plasma Active would work on a newer tablet.

 

A Finish company comprising mostly of ex-Nokia developers called Jola has announced that they’re developing an OS called Sailfish using Mer and Nemo and sporting a custom phone interface. I may be that Sailfish is the first Mer device to be in production.

Update: The Jola Other Half went on sale in late fall of 2013 in Finland. They opened up sales to the rest of Europe in January so I had my daughter who lives in Paris order me one which she then sent on to me in the US. So now I have a Jola Other Half running SailfishOS. I'll be doing a article on my impressions later but just for a quick teaser I'll say this - the quality of the phone is nowhere near Nokia level as it's made by a Chinese company and is fairly generic. The back of the Other Half is 3d printed and way to slick to use in daily life but I'm covering it with something to make it grippier. SailfishOS is not quite ready for primetime but I think it has amazing potential.



Plasma ActiveWhere does that leave us if we want an Open Mobile Linux device?

You have several options if you’d like to have an Open Mobile Linux device.

There are supposed to be Tizen devices by Q1 2013 so wait.
There are supposed to be Sailfish devices by Q1 2013 so wait.
There is already supposed to be a Plasma Active device (hardware supply problems) so wait.
You can always use a Maemo 5 (n900) or Maemo 6 (n9, n950) phone like do while you wait for these solutions.
You can try your hand at Open WebOS which isn’t based on Maemo is an Open Mobile Linux platform using javascript as it’s user interface. It doesn’t actually seem to run on anything but you can always hope.
You can keep using Android hoping that at some point Google will improve it instead of just moving widgets around. After-all you do have Connectbot for ssh so why are you complaining?





Tech Gadgets Blog Open Mobile Linux History