Tuesday, August 30, 2011

MeeGo (CE) and the FreeSmartphone.Org Distributions

Debian MeeGo mixup. MeeGo screenshot CC-BY wiki.meego.com, Debian screenshot by me
FreeSmartphone.Org (FSO), Openmoko, Debian's FSO group, SHR, QtMoko et cetera are a few of the community based intertwined projects to bring free software to smartphones. They have a relatively long and colorful history of doing this, and have nowadays been approaching multiple target devices despite limited resources and for example the losing of Openmoko Inc. in 2009. I've been using Debian on my Neo FreeRunner phone for over two years now, and over three years of FreeRunner use altogether. FSO2, the next generation freesmartphone.org stack, is finally coming into Debian now, extending the basic phone support besides Openmoko phones to eg. Palm Pre, Nexus One, Nokia N900 and a few HTC phones. It needs a lot of tweaking and eg. a proper kernel, but still.

Four years after beginning of sales of the first Openmoko device (Neo1973), we're still in the pioneering phase of free distributions for mobile phones. There is no "Ubuntu for phones" so to speak, not for even a selected models. Meanwhile, like so often in the wide world, competing free software approaches have arrived. Android is the obvious one, and has seen a port to Neo Freerunner among else. Android is not as open a project as one could like, and replaces everything we've known with its own code, but nevertheless it requires to be noted and is completely usable in its free software form. But since there are limitations to its approach, and since it's more of an own separate world from the rest of Linux distributions, it is not as interesting to me as the others in the long run, at least in its current shape.

A more similar competitor to FSO and distributions using FSO is MeeGo and its middleware, and to be more precise so far specifically Nokia's efforts on it. Obviously there is the strong competitor for the best general population smartphone of the year, the Qt based Nokia N9, but its default software is more of a proprietary thing even though it has a neatly rock solid free software foundation with separate free/non-free repositories and all that. Nice and great for the (GNU/)Linux in general, but the Harmattan software is not exactly on topic for this blog post. It's however in my opinion the best marketing to vendors around the world GNU/Linux + Qt can get as Android Linux has been taking most of the limelight. But meanwhile, with significantly smaller focus and resources, Nokia has also been sponsoring to try to create a truly community based mobile phone software stack at the MeeGo upstream, nowadays called "MeeGo Community Edition" or MeeGo CE for short. It co-operates with the MeeGo Handset target of MeeGo (and Intel) that hasn't got actual target consumer hardware at the moment, although that might change soon (?), but has been doing some nice applications recently. CE has the target hardware and additional device specific and non-specific software cooking. It used to target Nokia N900 only, but nowadays the project has added N950 (the for-developers-only phone) and N9 to the targets, and it is starting to seem there should be no showstoppers to bring MeeGo CE (or other distributions later on) to them, despite some earlier doubts. A few needed bits to void the warranty we all want to do are still missing, though, but coming. After that it's just developing free software. Usual caveats about specifics of a few kernel drivers apply, as the devices were not designed with the sole purpose of free software drivers in mind. Hopefully mobile 3D gets into a better shape in the coming years, but that's another story.

MeeGo (CE) smartphone middleware, of course, shares nothing with FSO *). While FSO is a "handle everything" in itself with its wide variety of daemons, MeeGo consists of more separate software like Intel's and Nokia's oFono for modem support. FSO demo UIs and SHR UIs have traditionally focused on using Enlightenment 17 for its suitability to low power machines, while in MeeGo everything is written in Qt. As Qt/QML is becoming faster and faster, and it's very powerful to write, there might be quite a bit of useful software emerging from there also for other distributions besides MeeGo itself. Actually, there is already a Debian MeeGo stack maintainer group available, although it hasn't yet focused on the UIs as far as I can see (if I'll have free time I'll join the effort and see for myself in more detail). There is also the QtMoko distribution, based on the original, canceled Trolltech/Nokia Qt Extended (Qtopia) project, but ported to newer Qt:s and put on top of Debian.

*) Although, correct me if I'm wrong and I might be, the Nokia N900 isi modem driver in FSO was ported/learned from oFono.

MeeGo CE is not only a project to bring a proper MeeGo distribution to a few smartphones, but also to shake out bugs in the MeeGo project's contributions and community processes. It is acting as a completely open MeeGo product contributor, and investigating how things should be optimally done so that everything gets integrated into the MeeGo properly, and that proper MeeGo software releases can be done for the target devices. Therefore it's also an important project for the vitality of the whole MeeGo.

MeeGo CE has so far had a whole team in Nokia working on it, but for obvious strategy related reasons community cannot rely on it lasting forever. The real hurdle is for the wider free smartphones community to be ready for really embracing a project that is already a community project but to outsiders might seem like a company project. I believe it's never easy to grow a volunteer community if the starting setup is a paid company team, but it mainly requires a) the interested people and b) the few smart ones to take control and communication responsibility so that it's not anymore seen as a company project. MeeGo CE never was a traditional company project, everything being done in the open and together with volunteers, but I just know how people perceive these things by default. People tend to assume stuff as someone else's responsibility

Whatever happens, I hope there are enough people interested in free software for mobile phones to carry on all these different approaches to the software needed. I hope MeeGo / MeeGo CE will have a great future, and I hope that both the middleware like FSO and MeeGo's components, and the UIs like FSO, SHR, QtMoko and MeeGo Handheld UIs continue to develop. I also hope other distributions like Debian will gather a strong suite of packaged software for smartphones. I know I have had some hard time to find suitable apps for my phone at times.

For those interested about how I use Debian as my mobile phone OS, see http://wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/User:TimoJyrinki

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