Moblin: Proof that Corporate Support Needed.

If anything the sudden appearance of Moblin 2.0 Beta and its excellent User Interface has proven, beyond any doubt, that corporate support is essential if linux — and the open source community — is going to survive beyond a very very small niche.
Linux on the server has been doing well despite Microsoft’s pretty good record with Windows Server in the past few years (and contrary to its failings with Vista), its dominant position on the desktop and its proven marketing muscle and the reason for this has been that Linux on the server has had the support of many large corporations living off it.
This has not been the case on the linux desktop, and it is probably the reason why so little has been achieved in the past seven or so years in that field. On one hand, the stagnant Gnome 2 platform barely kept alive primarily by Redhat and Novell that depend on it and on the other the interesting and fresh KDE4 platform that’s extremely immature and incomplete and leaves thousands of everyday use cases unsupported.

The problem is: as weird as it may seem, the gap between the leading desktop environments and linux is widening; sure, linux has moved forward, but so has OS X and so have Windows. What’s more, both leading platforms have now created the foundations for the desktop of the next five or ten years, while at the same time chaos, old and insufficient APIs and poor documentation are the norm in linuxland.
Users and developers alike have gotten spoilt by the ease of use of modern systems to the point where the linux desktop is increasingly looking and feeling dated. Skin-deep eyecandy as that provided by KWin and Compiz is not enough [is never was anyway] and not really helping usability and projects that will take another four years before they can be considered mature just don’t cut it: they’ll be obsolete by then anyway and chances are very few will even use them by that time.
We are now reaching a crucial point in time that will either spell the end of linux desktop as a promising platform [at least under the existing frameworks] or will solidify it as a contender. With Redhat and Novell having officially abandoned the linux desktop as a commercial product for the time being and with the remaining corporate players either too small or too incapable of supporting the fundamental development efforts required to bring desktop linux to the forefront, it is only through individual projects by stellar programmers, small teams in startups and — of course — the support of large corporations outside of the software development ecosystem.
Come to think of it, in the short history of linux, most of the innovation on the linux desktop has come from relatively small companies that staked their existence on it and focused on producing innovative solutions: Eazel, creating Nautilus, Trolltech (now Qt/Nokia) creating Qt, OpenedHand creating Clutter, HelixCode/Ximian creating lots of things off the top of my head. Most of those either failed or were bought by much larger corporations. But the work they did was phenomenal and game changing in many respects. This cannot be said about Canonical, Mandriva or many others claiming the credit for the successes of linux; while there is no doubt that, say, Mandriva’s early efforts helped bring people to linux or that Canonical’s fork of Debian and subsequent packaging efforts really helped during some of the darkest hours of desktop linux, but these were just too small contributions.
Most of the companies that really did help linux were founded, active and bankrupt in the years around the turn of the century, when ‘200x is going to be the Year of Linux on the desktop’ still meant more than an anachronistic joke among linux geeks.
The Moblin project is probably one of the very few examples of linux software that could be branded as polished, well thought-out design and high performance. It is a testament as to what is possible when large corporations, such as Intel, support small innovative companies, such as OpenedHand, to create new and innovative products that may end up changing the market where they operate.
While the desktop is probably going through a tough time with more and more people looking to mobile devices for the future and ignoring that no matter how much time elapses, they’ll probably always work sitting at a desk and that the notion of ‘working’ is mutually exclusive to ‘netbooks’ or ‘iPhones’, I’m sure that it’s pretty hard to convince anyone to invest in revamping the linux desktop from the ground up.
Yet Intel’s work with Moblin is filling me with hope that Linux just might be given a new chance on the desktop if larger corporations realise how much they could gain by investing it it now and create the foundations for a long time to come.
Update: I have updated the post by clarifying that it was the appearance of the beta of Moblin 2.0 that was ‘sudden’ and very pleasant, not the project in general. Moblin has been in the works for a while [first based on Ubuntu, then on Fedora], but the UI featured in the beta hasn’t shown its face to the world since now.