What next for netbooks?

Over the past few posts I’ve talked about my new Dell Mini 9: its hardware, Dell’s own Ubuntu-based installation, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix. The quick summary looks something like this:

  • Hardware: Good, but not perfect
  • Dell’s Ubuntu: Great, but not kept current enough for me
  • UNR: Current enough, but I’m not keen on some of the design choices. Worst of all, my wifi doesn’t work with it

So where to go next? I don’t have any plans to replace the Mini 9 itself for several years. The hardware is good enough for my netbook needs at least. I’m tempted to reinstall Dell’s Ubuntu distribution, as I preferred it over UNR. But there’s nothing I need to save on this machine – no important files, no essential browser history, not even any important bookmarks – so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t try out some more experimental netbook offerings.

Moblin

The one that looks most interesting to me is Intel’s Moblin platform. Not interesting enough for me to try it yet – some of the comments on the release announcement page imply that it’s well deserving of its Beta status. Nevertheless I like the fact that the Moblin UI isn’t just another rehash of a Linux desktop GUI, but is something geared specifically to the idea that netbooks are a different class of machine rather than just cheap notebooks.

There’s a nice review of the Moblin UI over at Ars Technica, and there’s a brief article about it here. If it will run on the Mini 9, perhaps Linpus’s take on Moblin will be worth a look – Linpus is the Linux distribution that ships on the Acer Aspire One netbook, so there’s a bit of prior netbook experience they can bring to bear.

I’m torn though, because precisely what I like about the look of Moblin – that it’s been tailored to suit netbooks, and isn’t a desktop GUI – could be exactly what I end up disliking about it. Dell’s Ubuntu version suffered because I couldn’t easily install the latest version of without jumping through hoops. Will Moblin leave me feeling bogged down by the same limitation?

Android

Android is best known as Google’s OS for mobile phones, but there has been some realisation that it might also make a good netbook OS. Although Android is based on Linux, most of its apps are written in Java, and it lacks many of the core elements of a Linux desktop distribution that would allow normal Linux applications to run.

Recently Dell has shown an example of Android running on a Mini 10, and another developer has dropped hints about Android running on the Mini 9. If the latter ever materialises as a freely downloadable disk image, I may well try running a full Android installation on my netbook.

There is another intriguing Android possibility, however: Android running alongside a normal Linux distribution. An early demo of Android apps running on a Ubuntu Netbok Remix installation has been shown, though based on this Ars Technica article, it would seem that there’s still a way to go before it’s ready for prime-time use. Maybe by the time Ubuntu’s Karmic Koala is released in October it will have become more viable.

Whatever happens, it’s great to see some interesting and experimental work going on in the netbook world. While too many consumers are being mis-sold netbooks as cheap notebooks, it’s good to see that there are developers who can see past that mindset, and who are trying to carve out a niche for netbooks as standalone devices in their own right.

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