When we travelled to Australia this summer, I needed to get a new DVD player for our kids to occupy them on the long flights. (If you’re going to complain about kids watching TV to me, first make sure you have kids. Then talk to me.) But, instead, I decided to get a cheap $200 netbook, a discontinued Dell Mini 9. I ripped a bunch of kid’s videos, which we own, and put them on a USB stick (the Dell has a tiny SSD HD) and they had a functioning DVD player and I had a little computer, too.

It came with Windows XP, which ran okay. I tried hackintoshing it but it was too nerdy for me and Windows 7 came out in RC around then and I put that on it instead, which works great.  I’ve upgraded the RAM and the HD on it and one thing that’s nice about the machine is how easy it is to work on.

But lately I’ve been running Moblin on it and, after some jiggering to get the wireless working, I think I’m in love. Moblin is a new netbook operating system from the Linux Foundation that Novell is working on along with Intel. It’s based on Linux (Mobile + Linux = Moblin, see?) but the UI has been completely redesigned. It’s different than the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which is a version of Ubuntu designed for smaller screens; instead, Moblin is different, in the way that the iPhone UI is different than Mac OSX.

Moblin assumes you’re using your netbook for web browsing, checking email, maintaining a calendar, IM’ing, blogging, listening to music or watching videos — doing those social media things that the kids are all into. It’s a recognition that a 9″ screen is not suited for all desktop applications; they’re there, if you need them, but the new UI puts these other activities front and center and hides the others. It’s very well done and worth checking out.

I really think that these very small netbooks are a different category of thing; they’re not just small laptops. I have an old IBM Thinkpad x40 that I’ve used for many years now on consulting projects and it works fine as a real working computer. (Going back to it from the Dell is a revelation; the keyboard, especially, feels huge, which is absurd for a 13″ machine.) At netbook size, you need something different than a remixed desktop operating system, which is what Moblin aims to do.

Plus, these netbooks are cheap; at $200, I’ve started to wonder about using one as a Skype phone instead of buying another cordless phone system or trying to figure out how to use VOIP at home.  And there must be a lot of other uses for a cheap little netbook running Moblin besides DVD player and Skype phone.