Linux Netbooks: Hiding in Plain Sight

You just think that’s a Chromebook beckoning you with an open source OS, easier upgradeability and fast connections to the cloud. All those qualities could make it a Linux netbook in disguise — or at least what the netbooks of a few years ago promised before they all started selling preloaded with Windows. The key? More manufacturers buying into the flexibility of the Linux kernel in the Chrome OS.

As a technology industry analyst, I was really beginning to think I got it wrong when it came to Linux netbooks, which Iheralded as one of the last great hopes for Linux on the desktop years ago.

As it turns out, considering the growing popularity and credibility of Chromebooks, the Linux netbook may still be living — at least in spirit — among us today.

New Greenfield Market

Part of my bullishness on Linux netbooks a few years ago went beyond the market’s and my own fondness for a smaller form factor, greater battery life and mobility, and more Web and cloud-based connectivity. I was more excited about the fact that these new devices ran Linux and open source software, making them much moreflexible and upgradeable.

Later on, even as we were seeing netbooks tip toward Windows,I was confident there was significant market share and influence ahead for Linux in this form factor.

I also believed netbooks to represent a new, greenfield market for Linux among not only users and consumers, but also manufacturers. In reality, it was Android thattruly proved to OEMs and wireless carriers that Linux could work.

As for Linux netbooks, despite a number of solid OS options that were free, they were rapidly replaced by Windows models with hard-disc drives. Even today, these Windows devices do not retain the same solid-state drive ruggedness and durability or software flexibility that made Linux netbooks interesting.

In my opinion, this is part of the demise of the netbook market. Rather than providing devices capable of running multiple operating systems and upgrades to them, netbooks became increasingly Windows-centric, which made them less of a new device and more of the same old thing for many consumers.

Nobody Loves Netbooks

Today there are a limited number of actual netbooks for sale. Most still come with Windows while there are some options running Linux, but one thing they all have in common is that none are in great demand. Even if I still work occasionally on the go with my Linux netbook, the netbook’s time has come and gone.

Netbooks aren’t the only form factor to have taken a beating. Some recent sales figures indicate possibly slower sales of Windows 8, while PC desktop and notebook sales are down. At the same time, the latest iteration of Chromebooks seem to be selling well with good reviews on usability and appeal.

Amid a lot of hype for tablets, perhaps because of the keyboard or some other parts of “older computers,” the form factor lives on and evolves with roots in the traditional notebook and — believe it or not — the netbook as well. One of the most significant carry-overs from the netbook is Linux, with Chromebooks leveraging the Linux-based Chrome OS.

Follow the Profitability

We must also consider the shift toward mobile computing, smartphones and tablets, and the departure from not only the traditional desktop PC but also from the traditional notebook PC. Rather than existing at a total disadvantage, as Linux did historically on the desktop, given Microsoft’s hold on the market, Linux is well-represented in the mobile market with Android.

I also see Canonical’s Ubuntu work developing and designing software for netbooks reflected in the look and feel of its recently announced mobile Ubuntu, which has potential todisrupt the mobile OS space.

Thanks to advances in the Linux kernel, market success of Android and continuing flexibility and options through openness for manufacturers, Linux has become a standard for OEMs that proves open source software can be effective and profitable for them. Growing manufacturer support for Chromebooks illustrates the same thing, with Linux and open source playing a significant role in the software and devices, but doing so inconspicuously and without much mention.

So the next time you see a Chromebook, just keep in mind: It really may be a form of Linux netbook.

LinuxInsider columnist Jay Lyman is a senior analyst for 451 Research, covering open source software and focusing primarily on Linux operating systems and vendors, open source software in the enterprise, application development, systems management and cloud computing. Lyman has been a speaker at numerous industry events, including the Open Source Business Conference, OSCON, Linux Plumber's Conference and Open Source World/Linux World, on topics such as Linux and open source in cloud computing, mobile software, and the impact of economic conditions and customer perspectives on open source. Follow his blog here.

1 Comment

  • Ugh.. Great, more note/net/whatever-books that won’t run many applications out there, because they are not, and never have been compiled for "Chrome OS". Chrome is not linux, its a bloody hybred, just like Android is, and, as such, you can’t just go to a repository, and go, "Heh, I would like to install X application." Most of these bloody things have you locked into a specific app store, precisely because its the only place you can even get anything that will run on them. The so called Chrome OS is only barely better than the horrible "cell phone" OSes, which companies are putting on tablets, and some "netbooks". Or, maybe I am just whiny because even the ones that come with Win8 won’t run half the stuff I actually use on a regular basis properly, due to the horrible nonsense they slapped over the top of the OS, never mind any of the Linux applications I might want to run on the ones that don’t have that.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

LinuxInsider Channels