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Flames, Figures and FUD: What's the Score in the Netbook Arena?

Flames, Figures and FUD: What's the Score in the Netbook Arena?

The issue of Windows' share of the U.S. netbook market versus Linux's slice of the pie has kicked up dust clouds in the FOSS blogosphere. The claim: Windows has a 96 percent share, and Linux netbooks get returned to stores in droves. Linux bloggers called it FUD, they called it propaganda, and some called it completely unsurprising.

By Katherine Noyes
04/13/09 4:00 AM PT

Visitors to the Linux blogosphere over the past few days may have emerged with singed hair and scorch marks, because a raging firestorm left few forums unscathed.

It all began when Brandon LeBlanc of the Windows Team Blog posted a review of Windows on netbooks over the past year. His incendiary conclusions? First, he asserted that Windows had achieved a 96 percent share of the netbook market as of February; then, as if that wasn't enough, he went on to say that return rates on Linux netbooks are four times higher than for Windows machines.

Could one even imagine statements more likely to erupt in a storm? We think not. Indeed, Linux blogs far and wide were ablaze for days afterward.

'King of FUD'

"I think Microsoft is growing increasingly desperate," wrote Carla Schroder on the Linux Today blog. "I thought the FUD and anti-Linux propaganda had already reached the saturation point, but it looks like I was wrong."

Similarly: "Microsoft is the king of FUD," agreed caitlyn on Lxer. "They have no compunction about lying or making false claims and never have."

Then again: "Ninety-six percent of netbooks run Windows, leaving the remaining four percent running without problems," quipped ColonelPanik.

'Simply Treading Water'

DaniWeb's Davey Winder chimed in with only faint protest -- concluding that Linux "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" -- while Computerworld's Eric Lai quoted ABI Research's Philip Solis, an analyst who apparently questions the reliability of the numbers.

Canonical even jumped into the fray with a blog post by Chris Kenyon, disputing most of LeBlanc's assertions. That, in turn, got picked up at the Computerworld blogs, on Digg and beyond -- to the tune of many, many more comments.

So what does it all mean? What's real and what's FUD? Ever determined to ferret out the truth, we here at LinuxInsider took to the streets for some answers.

'Trying to Be Windows'

"Microsoft almost certainly is the market leader in the netbook space," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider. "Windows has the benefit of familiarity, and users are savvy enough to wonder if Linux will run their favorite software. Since they don't know the answer, they assume it is 'probably not.'

"Since the answer is 'maybe' at best, they've made an intelligent purchasing decision," drinkypoo added.

"I think that one thing that's holding back Linux on netbooks is that it's trying to be Windows," he concluded. "On a netbook, Linux can easily be better than Windows! Instead of making a machine that behaves like Windows, perhaps it would be better to focus on something that's faster and easier to use."

'There Might Be Some Truth'

The funny thing about statistics is that "if someone didn't want to prove something, they'd never have hired someone to gather the statistics," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider.

"Microsoft is looking at declining sales in desktop operating systems; its biggest competition is itself, but it's still bleeding business to Apple and Linux vendors," Dean explained. "Comparing 'total Windows SKUs shipped' might make netbooks look like a glaring win to Redmond.

"Name another sector where people are buying new computers AND feeling happy they didn't get screwed with the OS they got," he said. "'Yay, we're selling operating systems, we win!'"

Nevertheless, "I think there might actually be some truth in Microsoft's claims, if the traditional desktop market is any indication," Dean said.

'A Long History of FUD'

On the other hand: "M$ and its allies have a long history of FUD," blogger Robert Pogson charged. "It is not surprising that they still do that. It is just another way that they try to eliminate competition."

The figures in question are "USA-centric: In the USA there are PCs in almost every home and netbooks are bought as extra machines," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "Homes with one or two machines running that other OS really may not be interested in a netbook running GNU/Linux."

Other parts of the world, however, "are very interested in GNU/Linux: Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Brazil, India and China, to name some," Pogson asserted. "Are these represented in the claims? No. Statements from Asus and others suggest about one-third of netbooks are shipping with GNU/Linux and return rates are small and similar to that other OS."

In other words? "No news at all," he concluded.

'Me Too' Marketing

"Shoot, there's nothing new there!" Slashdot blogger yagu agreed. "Microsoft has always been about spreading disinformation about their competition."

The original claims that Linux was dominating netbooks were surprising, yagu told LinuxInsider.

"My first guess is Microsoft was cautious enough initially to wait and see about the netbook market," he said. "When Microsoft saw a true market there, they did what they do: They stepped in and said, 'Me too!' Not a surprise, and once they want to play, vendors have no choice but to play too."

The most troubling aspect of the debate, however, is the claim of the higher return rates for Linux netbooks, yagu opined.

'A Serious Catch-22 for Linux'

"I truly believe for all things equal -- quality of hardware, needs for computing (e.g., not Windows based) and cost-efficiencies -- customers keep Linux as much as they do Windows," he said. "The problem arises not because of inferiority but because of unfamiliarity. People don't know they can't run Photoshop on Linux -- those customers aren't returning Linux because it's inferior or Windows is better, it's because they can't do what they need to do in Linux."

That, in turn, "leads to a serious Catch-22 for Linux," yagu noted. "If Linux wants to move up, it has to have applications for the masses. Software providers counter with, 'if you want our application on Linux, you have to give us a bigger market.' This is Microsoft's linchpin that holds their monopoly together."

What may turn the tide, however, is the increasing prevalence of embedded computers and "OS-agnostic," browser-based computing, yagu said. "At some point, (new) Linux customers will find they *can* do everything they need on Linux computers, and the pleasant surprise is, it's more responsive on less expensive hardware."


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