Why Microsoft won't fight moblin

Posted on Monday, September 28, 2009 by Erlik

There have been quite a few Moblin related announcements these last weeks: The release of the final version of Moblin 2.0, the Moblin Garage and the preview release of Moblin 2.1. More interesting is the news released by Microsoft's Silverlight team that they will develop Silverlight 3 for Moblin. Unlike Moonlight that is a Novel sponsored open source rewrite of Silverlight available for all Linux distribution, this looks like a binary only package that will be developed directly by Microsoft and made available only for Moblin. Microsoft porting it's technologies to Linux, WTF... Well it doesn't look that far fetched once you think a little bit further.

Intel has a problem

For the past 20 years Microsoft and Intel have been the best of friends: Intel was releasing more and more powerful chips and Microsoft released more and more powerful operating systems to use them. This worked well until a problem cropped up: Intel was not able to increase a processor's frequency anymore. To get out of the the problem Intel tried to put several processor cores on one chip. This only worked to some extent in the consumer market, as most users don't benefit much from having more than 2 cores in their computers. Intel management quickly realized that if they wanted to continue selling CPUs to consumers they would have to sell more chips for less money.

The rise of the Atom

To reach that goal they created the Atom processor, a chip that would propel the Netbook category to the forefront of personal computing and sell countless millions of devices. The chip could also be scaled to Nettops and in the future smartphones, set-top boxes and consumer electronics. Intel is on the verge of attaining its goal: selling a lot of cheap devices with it's processors inside. A problem appeared on the horizon however: Microsoft did not want to play ball!

The price of Windows

Most of these cheap new netbooks and nettop are breaking the relationship that kept Microsoft and Intel happy for so many years: the chips can't support new advances in operating systems (like Windows Vista). Worse, because of the low price of the machines Microsoft can't charge much for Windows on these machines, opening a market for Linux. Linux on netbooks is not much of a problem for Microsoft as long as the interface makes it clear that the netbook is a "device" and not a multi-purpose computer with a start menu and applications able to rival Windows. Once that consumers started to install Windows XP on netbooks and that Linux manufacturers started to release distributions that featured the same interface and capabilities as a Windows computer, Microsoft had no choice but to enter the marked with a very discounted version of Windows.

Moblin: the return to the computing device

Microsoft does not like the current situation, what they want is for the price and capabilities of netbooks to increase so that they can sell more expensive versions of Windows (such as Windows 7). What Intel wants is to continue to sell more and more cheaper chips, meaning that they want the price of netbooks to go down. For this they need an operating system that is not only cheap (or free) but also one that doesn't look like a traditional computer. Why? Because they don't want consumer to purchase these device to replace their computers but in addition of their current desktops or laptops. Because of this Moblin is designed with most of the capabilities of a full computer, but with an interface that is more suited to a mobile use than a desktop use.

What is in for Microsoft?

This is actually a win for Microsoft too as this clearly differentiates Moblin "devices" from Windows "all purpose" computers. Microsoft can continue to sell more expensive versions of Windows on more expensive computers with a traditional desktop interface without fearing too much the competition from the cheap Moblin powered netbooks: these don't look like Windows computers and are clearly for a different purpose. When an OEM complains about the price of Windows 7, now it can be told: use Moblin on your line of cheap netbooks that are companion devices and install an expensive version of Windows on higher end models that can replace a "full" computer. It is in Microsoft's interest to insure that Moblin is a good platform for basic tasks like surfing the web (hence the Silverlight port) to ensure that users don't install Windows in its place as long as the most advanced computing tasks are more intuitively done in Windows.

Moblin vs Windows?

Moblin is a Linux that is very different from Windows: the emphasis is clearly on web based applications, social networks, contacts etc... It is half way between a computer and a smartphone or PDA. It can of course run powerful Linux applications (otherwise users may replace it with Windows or a more desktop-like Linux distribution), but it is not the focus. Windows on the other hand is designed for desktop computing and powerful applications. The web takes a back seat to what is installed locally on the machine. Of course it can run web applications, just like Moblin can run local applications, but that is not the focus.


Moblin is the solution to the problem of Intel: providing a free, lightweight and powerful OS to sell cheaper netbooks and devices. This allows Microsoft to get out of the "bargain basement OS" market and to focus on a more expensive, higher end market with Windows 7. The differentiation between both OS is large enough to ensure that most people won't buy a Moblin device to replace their computer but to complement it. It suits Microsoft better if consumer purchase a Windows 7 desktop AND a Moblin netbook than if their purchase only a cheap Windows XP netbook.

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9 Responses to "Why Microsoft won't fight moblin":

Socceroos says:

Interesting insights.

The only thing I'd say is that I'm not sure Microsoft could bare not controlling the netbook market.

I think they'd still see this as an opportunity for Linux and open source in general to gain large acceptance in the public. As such, the wouldn't want it to flourish.

My guess is they don't expect Moblin to get anywhere. Sure, OEM's might start selling it, but it will never catch on. At least, that's what they hope.

Ian MacGregor says:

"Microsoft porting it's technologies to Linux, WTF"

WTF indeed. I wouldn't trust anything from Microsoft (especially binaries) as they clearly don't know how to properly design software for stability and security. Linux distributions have been improving over the years while Microsoft products still suck out loud. Will Microsoft ever get a clue?

cl333r says:

Intel also understands that since Microsoft is successful at creating hardware (XBox) it can well some day start creating chips. Thus, when that day comes, if Intel gets caught unprepared it will go bankrupt, hence Intel in a pre-emptive move started developing it's own OS to be on an even level with Microsoft when they start producing chips. And since Linux is already pretty advanced it costs relatively little for Intel to support Linux while strategically being a big potential win for Intel putting Intel into an advanced position from where it can often just say "no" to Microsoft's ambitions. And the more pervasive Linux gets the stronger Intel gets. Both Intel and Microsoft understand that.

Phil H says:

I've been saying this all along. We would not be at this point if the netbook makers has been smart enough to avoid XP and get people to thinking of netbooks in terms of devices rather than computers.

I do believe MS is blessing this as their only way out for the moment. However since Moblin is Linux it will serve to eliminate driver problems and encourage companies to support linux at least in their online offerings. It may or may not bring much desktop software support. If it does thats when MS will probably start moving to kill it again. But in the short term it could be a win for Linux users. I know my wife is interested in buying a netbook this Christmas and she would like to get one thats Linux based so it looks like we'll be buying a Moblin device this year at least.....hopefully Ubuntu Moblin.

Anonymous says:

MS knows that the majority of users will purchase the netbook and wonder why it doesn't perform as well as a laptop. After all, they look the same. Users will associate the poor performance and limitations with Linux. Therefore Linux gets a bad reputation. Who wins? MS

Abe says:

No matter which way Moblin develops or evolves, it will always be a win for Linux.

Since Moblin is Free Open Source Software, anyone can expand it from a "Device OS" to "General Purpose OS". If that doesn't happen, users who purchase it as a second unit to complement their main desktops, most will run Linux on their desktop for compatibility and uniformity.

MS will be left with two options, compete to stay in the computer business, which is a dead end for them, or move to a different business.

Anonymous says:

One problem for Microsoft is that a lot of people are replacing their full-featured laptops with internet-only netbooks. That favors Moblin.

Beyond that, there are the new ARM-cpu netbooks/smartbooks coming up at the end of this year. They will be cheaper than Intel Atom models, and also have longer battery life. They will be running various versions of Linux, or Windows CE/Mobile.

It is hard to see how all this is going to shake out, but things are not on the whole moving Microsoft or Intel's direction. All this choice is great for consumers, though.

Anonymous says:

Not as simple as it first appears.

MS silverlight could end up on Linux directly. modlin is not exactly anything special. First thing to be aware is Moblin is no longer a Intel only project. It is a Linux foundation project that any distribution out there can use or release a emulator for.

Basically no matter how MS spins it they are releasing silverlight directly for Linux.

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