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Is Linux dead in the netbook water?

 
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Writing at the official Windows Experience blog, Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc refers to the latest NPD Retail Tracking Service data which shows that as of the February 2009 the Windows share of the US netbook market is a staggering 96 percent. That's up from less than 10 percent of US unit sales during the first half of 2008 when the words netbook and Linux pretty much ran together. Now it seems that the netbook revolution is leaving Linux behind.

Of course, this has as much to do with the evolution of the hardware as it does with any disaffection for Linux. Market positioning has changed from being the cheap and cheerful Internet device at the budget end of the spectrum for the geek on the move who just wanted email and web plus something that would run an assortment of free open source apps. Now a netbook is seen more as a mini-notebook PC capable of running the kind of software your average user is familiar with from their laptop or desktop experience. As LeBlanc says "little did we know that these devices would evolve so much in such a short time." And evolve they have. Forget the tiny screens and tinier SSD storage, forget the snails pace processors, forget the cramped keyboards. netbooks have grown in all aspects from screen size (10" is now the standard rather than 7") to storage (100GB+ hard drives instead of 4GB SSD) and 1GB RAM is pretty much to be expected.

Given that the netbook, while still defined by size and price, is no longer a device in bondage to limited computing power and resources is it really that surprising that Linux is falling off in popularity? As the masses move to netbooks, so the mass market consumption of all things Windows marches ever onwards. People want what they are used to, and they are used to Windows. In that regard I think LeBlanc is correct when he talks of evidence that indicates customers "want netbook PCs to work like their larger brethren" however I take issue with him when he continues to suggest "buying a netbook with Windows" is the way to make that happen. Linux is, let's be frank here, perfectly capable of bringing desktop-alike performance to a netbook and the whole notion of Windows "offering more choice" and just working "out of the box" as if Linux is some slow country cousin is pretty laughable. Or is it?

Certainly there is no doubting the evidence from netbook OEMs and even some Linux vendors such as Canonical which suggests purchasers of Linux netbooks are up to 4 times as likely to return their devices than purchasers of Windows powered netbooks. The Carphone Warehouse, one of the largest mobile phone retailers in the UK, even dropped sales of Linux netbooks altogether after it saw return rates of 1 in every 5 sold, which it put down to customer confusion. I disagree with LeBlanc who, naturally enough, says that the return rate is partly down to Windows being easier to use. Anyone who has actually spent any time with a modern Linux distro will know that they are as user friendly as any modern OS. I also disagree with LeBlanc when he says that Windows "ultimately offers more choice" because there is no lack of open source software out there which can match commercial Windows apps function for function. Where LeBlanc does hit the nail on the head though, at least for the most part, is when he talks of Windows just working out of the box with people's stuff. If you buy a netbook and discover that hardware you need to connect to it stops working, and the tech support staff cannot help you because they only talk Windows, then frustration is bound to set in. Sure, this is less of a problem than it was just a handful of years ago, but a problem it remains.

So, is LeBlanc wrong to pretty much dismiss Linux altogether from the netbook equation, referring to netbooks as being just another Windows PC? Dell would probably think so. It has bucked the trend and claims 33 percent of the Mini 9 netbooks it has sold have shipped with Ubuntu specced and installed. Dell also reckons the return rate is the same as for Windows XP specced netbooks.

I do not think that Linux is dead as far as netbooks go, despite what those Microsoft quoted statistics suggest. They are, after all, Microsoft quoted statistics. Unfortunately, it does seem to be simply treading water at the moment, and I do wonder how much longer it can continue before it gets too tired to bother fighting the tide of Microsoft consumerism.

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Davey Winder

I'm a hacker turned writer and consultant, specialising in IT security. I've been a freelance word punk for over 20 years and along the way I have seen 23 of my books published, produced and presented programmes for TV and radio, picked up a bunch of awards and continue being a contributing editor with PC Pro - the best selling IT magazine in the UK .

 
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Believe it or not I have two netbooks: an Asus Eee and a HP Mini. I like the bigger keyboard on the HP better, but I prefer the Asus because it's running Linux and it's faster and more stable even though it's an older machine. The whole idea of the mini is to use it to access cloud applications. The underlying OS doesn't really matter in that context.

 
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Hi All,

This is the third time this evening that I've posted about this FUD.

But, not on my Blog yet.

Keep everyone in the "Stone Age". Get with the real world.

These stupid Microsoft (M$) responses p*ss me off. There is no freedom there - Run Linux, Run Open Source, Run Free!

 
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Hi -

I think you have essentially defined the problem and opportunity for Linux. The Netbooks battle for OS share is not over - given that HP, Dell and Asus are all considering either Google Android or Intel MobLin or Ubuntu Remix. This brings brand name power equal to (and I would say better than Microsoft vis a vis desktop OS) to the fray.

I suspect for the short term Microsoft will negate the Linux price advantage by giving away Windows XP if it has not done so already. But Linux has 4 huge advantages over Windows :
1)it is open source and so OEMs and telecoms that want to add their own hardware and particularly software to the systems can do so much more readily than for Microsoft ;
2)Linux boots and runs much faster and with less resources than Windows XP let alone Windows 7 which Redmond insists it will shoehorn onto Netbooks;
3)Linux is much more stable overtime then Windows XP which I simply have to reboot to get back lost memory and slower response time;
4)Linux is just much more reliable and secure despite the constant FUD from Redmond.

Linux may gain some real power from point 1) and 4) above with OEMs who want to be more independent of MS but also went minimum maintenance problems. I count on consumers to make just what the best friend says" purchase decisions. And if their best friend is the IT trade press or big retailers that get also sorts of co-marketing or sponsorship deals from Redmond - then these will negate the Telecoms free giveaways. But with the "96% market share and we have buried you remarks/comments from Microsoft, Redmond has clearly signalled they will be deploying all the bucks, hardballs and brick bats necessary to win this battle.

See "Will the linux remain the desktop whimp?" here - http://www.theopensourcery.com/keepopen/?p=1173
for further kibitzing and commentary on this upcoming battle. Microsoft has nearly ruined its desktop OS brand with Vista - so like Lucy they have a lot spalinin to do to their customers. And currently on bloat and speed Windows 7 beta is still remiss.

 
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Personally I would love to have linux around on netbooks as much as possible. But the hard truth is people are habituated with windows. And habits die hard. People want the good old familiar windows and I have to say windows 7 is definitely good to go on netbooks and is definitely going to make it harder for linux to compete.

So unless the linux world keeps coming out with something like Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10 with full out of box driver support for all netbook models I dont see a very bright future...

 
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I bought my Dell 9" Mini with 9.04 installed and quickly switched to Netbook remix because Dell didn't support the 9.10 upgrade, a bad mistake on their part.
When I show it to people, they very quickly master the web interface, and often don't even realize it's running Linux.
Still, when I offer to install Linux on an older PC, or to set up a dual boot, people run screaming.
In one case, I gave away an older PC with 9.1 Ubuntu to a complete novice, and he's happily computing away without realizing other people use a different OS.
Fear rules the average windows user.

 
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Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10 has replaced Windows XP that came on my Acer D250. I love it now. UNR is free, fast, friendly, & fun. ..... oh yea virus-free.. :p

 
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i guess you either like or you don't ,have been playing with live cds for years ,have a bout 6 of them ,will say my Puppy linux multisession dvd,that i can save changes to is my favorite ,
http://www.puppylinux.com/multi-puppy.htm
But i still like windows better ,

 
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Considering that Ubuntu Netbook Remix actually runs and boots slower than XP and is incompatible with a lot of existing linux apps (for example, Mplayer freaks out if run in UNR) I'd say that it's pretty hard to convince people to switch unless they're masochists. Not to mention the proprietary but very useful things that will not work at all, like Netflix's Watch Instantly (Moonlight doesn't support Silverlight's DRM and even resorting to Wine hits a brick wall due to DirectX requirements).
Moblin at least runs faster than XP, but for now it's filled with bugs (for example, in 2.1 wifi doesn't work on the popular EEE 1000H and some U100's and the Cheese app for the webcam has issues with sound and making videos that play back at the correct frame rate). Most problematic is it's ridiculously bad codec support. You can't play mp3s or xvid movies out of the box, and in order to get these working there's literally hours and hours of compilation required (I am not exaggerating-compiling is not speedy on netbooks). And even then that's only if you manage to figure out how and what to install. And neither of these (nor any version of linux actually) can decode audio in the "Windows Media Speech" format so many video conferences or lecture videos simply will not play unless you install Windows.
Linux isn't going to unseat Windows anytime soon for the average user and it's silly to think that it will. It's great for servers, and there might be a place for something like Moblin once it's cleaned up but people would want to dual-boot Windows.

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