Linux, Windows 7 and Netbooks: It's On
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 for these lightweights, speculation is growing that Microsoft will retool its not-yet-released Windows 7 OS into a version that shoe-horns into netbooks.
But even without a second Windows OS competitor in the fray, the open source community is hawking its alternative OS choices as a big opportunity in netbooks. Of course, it remains to be seen if consumers and businesses will actually buy into the concept of a netbook with Linux installed if a Windows option is available.
If the Linux OS is going stake a claim on the netbook, its communities have to fight against Windowmania. Potential buyers will have to see Linux as a non-threatening experience.
"Linux is now feature-identical to Windows. Despite the nitpicking details, Linux won't be an unusual experience to use on netbooks," Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.
Clearly, netbook vendors have an advantage in offering Linux instead of Windows. The price is right.
"It boils down to the price point for netbooks. Obviously, Linux has the edge here. Microsoft will always have to charge even if the price of the OS is lowered," Rafael Laguna, Open-Xchange CEO, told LinuxInsider.
However, the lower price that Linux brings to the netbook table is just one part of the sales strategy for vendors, Zemlin believes. Netbooks are luring first-time computer buyers who have no predisposition 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 of 5 percent exists for OEM vendors installing Windows. Vendors have been looking for alternatives," said Zemlin.
Still, for some consumers and potential business converts, the issue of buying a netbook with or without Windows as the installed operating system can be a make-or-break proposition. If the netbook is going to be used as a second computer, the user has to deal with compatibility issues.
"We need to educate potential users that Linux won't work the same way as 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 Linux distribution.
Linux is just as good as Windows and can be made better, but potential netbook buyers need a real choice based on a reliable product that 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 bit closer for businesses [in fully accepting the Linux OS]. There is not yet a compelling reason for users to switch," said Carr.
Growing Linux Users
The push toward offering the Linux alternative to mainstream consumers is starting to take root. Zemlin gives much of the credit for the surge in Linux's popularity to the success of the Asus Eee PC, one of the earliest netbooks to arrive on the market.
"The Linux Foundation's philosophy is to stick it to Microsoft with Linux's strengths. Linux developers release early, and they release often. This gets improvements into the code sooner. Microsoft can't overcome the architectural problem it created. Vendors can't brand it and can't customize it they way they can with a Linux distro," said Zemlin.
From Canonical's view, its initial success in placing a remixed version of the popular Ubuntu distro on netbooks sold by several manufacturers is already gaining new Linux users and will help to grow the user base. In particular, the six-month release cycle Ubuntu follows for upgrades will give the OS's developers much improvement and added experience working with netbook hardware, noted Carr.
"This gives us a terrific position against Windows 7 when it finally arrives. We need to overcome Windows bias. This will be a difficult task to overcome user change," said Carr.
The Linux Leap
In order to make Linux appealing to consumers, vendors and developers have 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 like Microsoft as they can. Make it very similar to what XP does. This will be key. Ubuntu has made strong inroads this way," Open-Xchange's Laguna said.
The Linux community must learn from the mistakes Microsoft made in rolling out Windows Vista. In fact, Microsoft suffered the same user reaction 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 the netbook, it will have to be easier for consumers to use. The user interface will be a critical issue.
For instance, The Asus Eee PC has a graphical interface that hides the traditional Linux desktop. Instead, it presents users with icons that allow them to operate the netbook with point-and-click action. Similarly, Canonical gives users an icon-driven interface along with a switcher function to change over to the standard Ubuntu desktop.
"Vendors are putting different interfaces in their netbooks. Vendors need caution about this radical change. There is an ecosystem building about this," said Canonical's Carr, adding that vendors need to make sure that the user experience is smooth.
For example, vendors must ensure WiFi and 3G networks make it easy to switch over to Linux for Windows' users already used to doing 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 a strategy but a reaction. Microsoft has to answer consumer demands to keep XP alive. Vista doesn't work on netbooks," said LF's Carr.
Linux pluses include its free availability and lack of licensing or activation requirements. Add its ability to be branded to the OEM, and Linux provides a customized OS experience. Also, the time to market is much quicker for vendors installing Linux, according to Zemlin.
"Microsoft is not going to make a customized version of Windows," he added as a final argument for Linux on netbooks. "Microsoft is now the monkey in the middle between Macs on the high end and Linux at the other end."
Perhaps the final hurdle in attracting users to Linux on netbooks is the software issue. It's unlikely that Linux developers will rely on Windows emulation to get Windows programs to run under Linux.
Hardcore Linux adopters have often used a program called "Wine" (Wine Is Not an Emulator) to create a virtual environment within the Linux desktop to run Windows programs. However, Wine is difficult to configure and 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 planned solutions to entice migration to Linux on netbooks.
"We aren't considering a pitch about using Wine or Parallels like on a Mac. There is no real look at Wine. It doesn't always work well. So this won't win over users to the benefits of Linux," said Carr.
Instead, marketing forces will influence software developers to meet the demands of users. Wine is more of a temporary, unofficial solution for 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.