The netbook battle is on. Microsoft XP — and possibly Windows 7 — are fighting it out with Linux for a place in the tiny netbook configuration. If Linux is going to beat out Microsoft as the OS of choice on netbooks, the Linux community will have to convince consumers that “costs nothing” does not mean “not worth anything.”
Several vendors — including Asus, Dell, HP, Acer and MSI — are selling miniature laptops called “netbooks.” These pint-sized wonders, usually measuring about 10 inches, often feature solid-state hard drives and retail for as low as US$350 to $500. Other models are endowed with traditional hard drives that store almost as much data as a full-sized notebook. The operating systems most often offer pre-installed with netbooks are Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux, and one or two hybrid mobile Linux distros.
While Windows Vista is usually way too cumbersome forthese lightweights, speculation is growing that Microsoftwill retool its not-yet-released Windows 7 OS into a version thatshoe-horns into netbooks.
But even without a second Windows OS competitor in the fray, the opensource community is hawking its alternative OS choices as a bigopportunity in netbooks. Of course, it remains to be seen if consumersand businesses will actually buy into the concept of a netbook withLinux installed if a Windows option is available.
If the Linux OS is going stake a claim on the netbook, its communitieshave to fight against Windowmania. Potential buyers will have to seeLinux as a non-threatening experience.
“Linux is now feature-identical to Windows. Despite the nitpickingdetails, Linux won’t be an unusual experience to use on netbooks,” JimZemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.
Clearly, netbook vendors have an advantage in offering Linux insteadof Windows. The price is right.
“It boils down to the price point for netbooks. Obviously, Linux hasthe edge here. Microsoft will always have to charge even if the priceof the OS is lowered,” Rafael Laguna, Open-Xchange CEO, toldLinuxInsider.
However, the lower price that Linux brings to the netbook table is just onepart of the sales strategy for vendors, Zemlin believes.Netbooks are luring first-time computer buyers who have nopredisposition for Windows.
“Most people buying netbooks would be in a first-computer situation.Linux is the reason the netbooks market is taking off. A low margin of5 percent exists for OEM vendors installing Windows. Vendors have beenlooking for alternatives,” said Zemlin.
Still, for some consumers and potential business converts, the issueof buying a netbook with or without Windows as the installed operatingsystem can be a make-or-break proposition. If the netbook is going to be used asa second computer, the user has to deal with compatibility issues.
“We need to educate potential users that Linux won’t work the same wayas Windows and they will need to use different software programs,”Gerry Carr, marketing manager at Canonical, told LinuxInsider.Canonical is the commercial sponsor of the free Ubuntu Linuxdistribution.
Linux is just as good as Windows and can be made better, but potentialnetbook buyers need a real choice based on a reliable productthat has a benefit other than being a free OS, according to Carr.
“It will take time. We are a long way for the consumer and a bitcloser for businesses [in fully accepting the Linux OS]. There is notyet a compelling reason for users to switch,” said Carr.
Growing Linux Users
The push toward offering the Linux alternative to mainstreamconsumers is starting to take root. Zemlin gives muchof the credit for the surge in Linux’s popularity to the success ofthe Asus Eee PC, one of the earliest netbooks to arrive on the market.
“The Linux Foundation’s philosophy is to stick it to Microsoft withLinux’s strengths. Linux developers release early, and they releaseoften. This gets improvements into the code sooner. Microsoft can’tovercome the architectural problem it created. Vendors can’t brand itand can’t customize it they way they can with a Linux distro,” saidZemlin.
From Canonical’s view, its initial success in placing a remixedversion of the popular Ubuntu distro on netbooks sold by severalmanufacturers is already gaining new Linux users and will help to growthe user base. In particular, the six-month release cycle Ubuntufollows for upgrades will give the OS’s developers much improvementand added experience working with netbook hardware, noted Carr.
“This gives us a terrific position against Windows 7 when it finallyarrives. We need to overcome Windows bias. This will be a difficulttask to overcome user change,” said Carr.
The Linux Leap
In order to make Linux appealing to consumers, vendors and developershave to straddle several hurdles, according to Laguna. Like it or not,Linux has to have the look and feel of Windows to succeed.
“For netbooks, Linux vendors have to make it look as much likeMicrosoft as they can. Make it very similar to what XP does. This willbe key. Ubuntu has made strong inroads this way,” Open-Xchange’sLaguna said.
The Linux community must learn from the mistakes Microsoft made inrolling out Windows Vista. In fact, Microsoft suffered the same userreaction when it forced XP users to migrate to Vista, he noted.
“Things didn’t work the same way and frustration set in,” he explained.
The GUI Sticking Point
If Linux is to succeed as an alternative to Windows on the thenetbook, it will have to be easier for consumers to use. The userinterface will be a critical issue.
For instance, The Asus Eee PC has a graphical interface that hides thetraditional Linux desktop. Instead, it presents users with icons thatallow them to operate the netbook with point-and-click action.Similarly, Canonical gives users an icon-driven interface along with aswitcher function to change over to the standard Ubuntu desktop.
“Vendors are putting different interfaces in their netbooks. Vendorsneed caution about this radical change. There is an ecosystembuilding about this,” said Canonical’s Carr, adding that vendors needto make sure that the user experience is smooth.
For example, vendors must ensure WiFi and 3G networks makeit easy to switch over to Linux for Windows’ users already used todoing those things seamlessly in their more familiar OS, he explained.
Windows No Threat
While the Linux community is charting a sales strategy for Linux on netbooks, Microsoft is already reacting.
“Microsoft fitting Windows XP or Windows 7 onto a netbook is not astrategy but a reaction. Microsoft has to answer consumer demands tokeep XP alive. Vista doesn’t work on netbooks,” said LF’s Carr.
Linux pluses include its free availability and lack of licensing oractivation requirements. Add its ability to be branded to the OEM, andLinux provides a customized OS experience. Also, the time to market ismuch quicker for vendors installing Linux, according to Zemlin.
“Microsoft is not going to make a customized version of Windows,” headded as a final argument for Linux on netbooks. “Microsoft is now themonkey in the middle between Macs on the high end and Linux at theother end.”
Perhaps the final hurdle in attracting users to Linux on netbooks isthe software issue. It’s unlikely that Linux developers will rely onWindows emulation to get Windows programs to run under Linux.
Hardcore Linux adopters have often used a program called “Wine” (Wine IsNot an Emulator) to create a virtual environment within the Linuxdesktop to run Windows programs. However, Wine is difficult to configureand doesn’t work every time. Also, products from companies like Parallels that let Mac users run Windows and its programs on the Mac desktop are not plannedsolutions to entice migration to Linux on netbooks.
“We aren’t considering a pitch about using Wine or Parallels like on aMac. There is no real look at Wine. It doesn’t always work well. Sothis won’t win over users to the benefits of Linux,” said Carr.
Instead, marketing forces will influence software developers to meetthe demands of users. Wine is more of a temporary, unofficial solutionfor former Windows users.
“Over time, vendors will be able to justify porting their Windows’apps to Linux without [users] needing Wine to run them,” Zemlin said.