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KDE Plasma Active for Nexus 7

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On the heels of running Ubuntu on the Nexus 7, I thought I’d try KDE’s Mer based (partly derived from MeeGo) Plasma Active as well. As their documentation states: “Even though very much already works reasonably well, there are still some glitches. So, please don’t expect a 100% working system.” And it is indeed a bit more than small glitches which have to be fixed before it is a usable system.

Using Ruediger Gad instructions, I downloaded the boot and userdata images, and proceeded with the installation steps. Although not one-click like Ubuntu, it is reasonable straight forward, however, once it is time to boot the new OS, there are some problems: I only see a “dead” Android on its back with a red exclamation mark. (This is of course Google’s fault, who have hidden any useful information one might get a further clue from, and gone for a “IT for Dummies” mode). It seems Gad had anticipated some problems though, since he has provided a helpful fastboot command to load the boot image dynamically. This works, with the caveat that the MOSLO (MeeGo OS Loader) will go into a USB slave mode if a USB cable is detected. Therefore, I had to issue the fastboot command and then quickly jerk out the cable, and the OS would boot. (Skipping the MOSLO altogether failed to boot at all (Stuck on “Waiting for root device /dev/mmcblk0pX”)).

Once finally in the UI, I don’t seem to have the same luck as Gad. On the first try, even the most basic clicks and moves left the whole screen hanging for up to 30 seconds, and it failed to render the application icons seen on his blog. Trying to boot a second time, I got so far as to open the browser and terminal. Typing with the on-screen keyboard in the URL did not work, since it loses focus once another part of the screen is touched. Looking at dmesg in the terminal, I could see that my USB-OTG adapter, USB Hub, keyboard and mouse were detected correctly, however there seems to be drivers missing, since nothing happened when moving the mouse or typing. So yeah, some glitches, which hopefully will be ironed out in a new release.

What’s a bit more worrying, is the impression of the overall UI, and usefulness on a small touch screen. Just like the Ubuntu UI, Plasma Active is still stuck with a desktop centric view: Small icons and buttons, difficult to interact with. Setting up the Wifi dumped the user right in to an old desktop dialogue, complete with small text fields, and OK / Cancel buttons in the far bottom corner. This was probably the most disappointing bit, since I had expected the Plasma Active interface to be designed specifically for small touch screens. Clearly I was wrong.

Overall then, KDE Plasma Active is an interesting initiative, and one to watch in the future. However, just like Ubuntu, these are still very early days for new alternative OSes on tablets and phones. Given some more time, things will look a lot more promising, for sure.

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Mobile OSes

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There has been quite a bit of news on the mobile OS space lately. We’re starting to see a trend of diversifying solutions, as opposed to the “me-too; Android” phones over the last couple of years. On the hardware side, Nokia is continuing its decline, but as this Guardian article shows, still delivers about a quarter of the handsets (smart and feature phones) to the Western European market. It is far surpassed by Samsung at almost 40%, while Apple, who only make smart phones, sold some 10% of the devices.

On the software side, Google released Android 4.1, including source code, while Facebook has announced their own customized OS, however it is likely to be Android based. Meanwhile, old Nokia employees still believe in their adopted child, MeeGo, and has forked off a company to continue development.

New on the block is Mozilla, with their Boot to Gecko, Mobile Firefox OS. They showed off screenshots this week. Mozilla has taken a bold step by basing all “native” applications and UI on HTML5. It should make applications easy to develop, however, there still has to be a OS specific API beyond HTML5 to handle features like cross-application intents (e.g. use this number to call), copy/paste, etc. and possibly hardware functions like camera, motion sensors, compass and so on.

To round off, a recent H-Online article by Andrew Back discusses how all the “open” alternatives still rely on proprietary hardware drivers for radio, and other auxiliary chips. As long as the fireware for these are closed there is a problem for security and freedom, he asserts. He mentions the OsmocomBB project as a free GSM implementation, but also that fully free and open software radios are unlikely to see the light, as it will not get certification by telecom regulators, and thus will be illegal to operate.

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Mobile OS

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In the world of OSes for mobile phones, there have been a lot of changes lately, with some going away and others joining the race. A while back, Intel announced that they would drop MeeGo, which means that it is dead since there is nobody else to support it if the community can’t keep it going. But at the same time, they said the code would be merged with another mobile OS. Intel and the Linux Foundation will be steering the OS with the very unfortunate name Tizen (it can easily be mistaken for meaning penis in some of the Scandinavian languages).

Meanwhile, over at Nokia they are betting on Windows Mobile (and making many of their employees disgruntled), while at the same time releasing the already defunct MeeGo OS in their N9 phone. However, since these are all OSes for high end smart phones, they also need something for their so called “feature phones” which are not power full enough (or have different user groups) to drive all the complex functionality. Enter Meltemi, ironically enough a Linux based OS to replace Symbian S40 series.

The story does not end there, though. Amongst the free mobile OSes, KDE is entering the race. Not with a complete separate OS, but rather a UX platform, Plasma Active, with an API for phones, tables, set-top boxes, home automation, and so on. Plasma Active has to run on top of some OS, and currently they are using MeeGo and openSUSE based Balsam Professional.

It is refreshing to see a lot of movement in this area, and hopefully it will lead to a free alternative. However, the at moment it is still looking somewhat bleak for truly free mobile phone OSes. The firmware and driver issue seems to be never ending, and not even the OpenMoko can escape it.

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MeeGo (CE) and the FreeSmartphone.Org Distributions

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Timo Jyrinki has an interesting write-up about free software on mobile phones. Mentioning FreeSmartphone.Org (FSO), Openmoko, Debian’s FSO group, SHR, QtMoko, and MeeGo.

He highlights the promising combination of GNU/Linux + Qt in MeeGo, and also hopes for further development in FSO, SHR, and QtMoko. However, he concludes that getting the community to take over the MeeGo project after Nokia leaves might be difficult task.

MeeGo 1.2 Released

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The next version of MeeGo was released yesterday, moving to 1.2. This release seems to have focused on hand-held device features. Maybe we’ll see a port to some of the Android devices soon?

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Good Bye Nokia

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Yesterday it was announced that Nokia would partner with Microsoft for their new smart phones. Investors did not like the news, and sent Nokia’s stock down 14% on heavy trading. Slashdot did not like the news, with comments like “rest in peace“, and several “this was the last Nokia I’ll own“. The Register called it Losers Alliance.

Although Nokia says they will keep MeeGo around, it seems unlikely that it will top priority. Microlith’s comment describes the bleak future of open smart phones in the near future:

“The problem with Android, IMO, is that the entire ecosystem composing it and much of what surrounds it is entirely insular, and to no great benefit.

It shares no common libraries or interfaces with what you find in most Linux distributions. It uses a unique libc that no other distribution uses. It uses a file system layout that is not found anywhere else. Its GUI rendering subsystem is completely unique and incompatible with all others.

The end result is that changes to Android stay within the Android system and do not benefit open source projects outside of it. And projects outside of it require heavy rewrites to work, at all, on Android. Not to mention that Android has no real repository type system, so you’re left trading .apk files and latching on to the market, which is only available on the default builds of some devices and not at all on others.

Maemo was developed with that compatibility in mind, and is a large part of the reason I bought it. It was most of what the OpenMoko Freerunner tried to be, and MeeGo only improved the openness aspect of it. MeeGo allowed mobile devices to retain continuity with the rest of the open source ecosystem you find in most desktop Linux systems, thus changes and improvements to both ends benefits everyone. In addition, it removed the non-device-specific closed bits and created a platform independent of any one handset vendor.

Android leaves you a second (or more likely, third) class citizen in this effort, as the AOSP does not, last I checked, flow upstream into the Android core and the AOSP only receives the latest changes to Android after it’s been delivered to device manufacturers (see Honeycomb and Motorola.)

So this is very much a Microsoft victory against Open Source, if not Free Software, projects in the mobile space. And Android is not a way forward that is very fair to end users and non-corporate developers.”

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Smart phones: Android increasing, everybody else decreasing. Symbian still the king.

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From Gartner’s report on Q3 2010 sales of smart phones, rendered by Wikipedia above, Symbian is still the king of the hill with 36.6% of the OS share. However, they have taken a sharp hit year-by-year, down from 44.6% they year before. Meanwhile, Android increased drastically, from 3.5% to 25.5%. All the other smart phone OSes decreased, with Windows Mobile on par with Linux and “other”, at 1-3%.

Symbian will not reign much longer though, since Nokia is moving to the MeeGo OS for their next smart phones. Since iPhone 4 was launched end of 2010, it seems fair to expect a boost in Apple’s share. Several high end Android based phones have also been launched lately, so a further most might be expected here has well.

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Nokia N900 and MeeGo packages

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Nokia N900 has been out for a while, and after N8 was released, everybody is now waiting for N9 which will be the first mobile to use the new MeeGo OS. However, MeeGo has already been officially ported to N900. From their set up instructions, this practically sold me on the phone already: “The ‘scp’ and ‘ssh’ tools should be available from within the device and you can transfer files in and out with them. You should also be able to run ‘yum install’ now, to install packages.“. That’s something users of all other phones cannot and probably will never be able to do.

I thought I’d have a look at which packages are available for the ARM7 architecture. The packages specific to ARM7 are not that surprising; just the basic stuff. However, looking at the repodata/patterns.xml file, it starts getting interesting. The package called meego-handset-devel-support has some very welcome dependencies, including: wget, openssh-server, rsync, screen, qt-devel, make, gcc, strace, valgrind, powertop.

All these can be found in the core section. However, the packages there are also available for other non-handset form factors, and might not be installable on a phone. We will just have to wait and see.

So although this looks very promising, I’m still holding on to my N80 for a while. Even after four years of use, it’s the best phone I’ve had. I’ll let others take care of the early adoption and testing.

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