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.