Moblin: a first look at Intel's open-source OS

The first beta of Moblin v2.0 has just been released, and I decided to take a play with it

Moblin includes an actual email client, seemingly based on Evolution, and I found this astonishing. If you're still in the groove of downloading email to your computer in our modern age then you're doing it wrong. If you're downloading it to a portable computer designed to be a secondary computing device then you've definitely doing it wrong.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's start with a description of how Moblin looks and feels.

Look and Feel

Put simply, Moblin looks and feels terrific. We're talking Apple-like levels of attractiveness. Similarly, intuition is the name of the game with the user-interface, and it invites an Apple-like sensibility of following your nose to work out how things work.

Across the top of the screen is a range of icons representing various activities you can do. This is effectively a floating toolbar, because it disappears when you don't need it. When the mouse runs over the toolbar, its icons jiggle about in a neat way, a feature provided by the Clutter OpenGL graphics and animation toolkit that underpins the whole OS. This gives everything a fun feel, and reminds you that this is not a business-oriented OS. Moblin is for things you want to do, not things you have to do.

Once you select an icon, its program window pop-out beneath the toolbar. The program window might fill just half of the screen, such as with the Status Update tool by which you can post to Twitter, or it might fill the entire screen, as with the browser.

The Web browser is a good example of the design philosophy and polish applied to Moblin. Click on the browser icon on the main toolbar, and a small panel folds out showing thumbnail previews of your favorite websites. Alternatively, you can type an address in the relevant field. Once this is done, the browser then takes over the entire window. Along the top of the screen is the address bar, along with a tab bar, but the rest of the screen contains nothing but the website.

Zoned Out

Key to Moblin's interface philosophy is the concept of zones. However, the term is used in two separate and distinct ways. The first usage is the 'myzone'. This gets its own toolbar button and effectively provides an aggregated home page where, for want of a better way of saying it, you can see at a glance what's happening in your online world. Recent twitters from your friends appear here, as do thumbnail previews of your favourite websites. Calendar and To Do reminders also appear at the left.

The second use of the word is to provide what are effectively virtual desktops, which is a method of overcoming the limitations of small netbook screen sizes. Any application you start must be assigned to an existing zone, or to a new zone. More than one application can be assigned to a zone, and perhaps this lets you see the benefit -- the zone switching tool (which has its own toolbar button) lets you select between not only zones but also applications within a zone. If you've ever used any of Mac OS X's Spaces and Expose features, you'll already be aware of the overall concept.

It works well, but it's a little irritating to be prompted to choose a zone to assign the program to upon each program launch. It turns a one-click procedure into a two-click procedure, and also induces confusion in beginners who don't yet understand the concept of zones.

Far better would be if the application was automatically assigned to a new zone. The zone manager could then be used for the more sensible purpose of aggregating and managing existing program windows.

Criticism

Sometimes Moblin wasn't entirely intuitive. It would do something strange, leaving me wondering what it's up to. Why did that program window just appear? How to I make it not do what it just did? Additionally, the floating toolbar at the top had a habit of popping down when I went to click the close button on an application window, such as the browser (although you have to wonder why it's even possible to close the browser window in an OS like Moblin -- it's the core tool for the user, and should always be there in the background).

Everything you need to click within Moblin tends to be at the top of the screen, and this causes a bit of a clutter. I'm not sure why the browser window toolbars can't be at the bottom. This works well for the browser on my Nokia N800.

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