Will Linux Survive on Netbooks?

Linux on netbooks.  What a concept!  Same great experience, but less filling.  Not!

What a difference a year makes.  After initial unbridled enthusiasm in 2008, Linux-based netbooks, MIDs and similar devices are taking a beating, delivered by, you guessed it — Microsoft. Consumers avoid Linux netbooks, manufacturers despair over immovable inventory – only free software enthusiasts seem ready to adopt these orphaned devices.
So why isn’t 2009 the “Year of Mobile Linux”? On paper, the case for deploying Linux on netbooks and MIDs looks compelling:

  • Lower Bill of Materials (B0M), both from shedding the “Windows Tax” and from more minimal provisioning of DRAM, HDD and client-based applications
  • More flexible system architecture – no lock-in to the “Wintel-PC virtual machine”
  • Customizable look-and-feel for OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) eager to distance their brand from Microsoft
  • Ability to leverage web apps (like Google’s) and emerging Cloud Computing resources

Marketplace reality quickly proved that the best-laid plans of OEMs and ISVs often go awry.  In the first half of 2008, OEM enthusiasm for Linux-based netbooks was so great that Windows (XP and CE) garnered only 10% of the pre-installed market.  By Q1 of 2009, Windows had come back with a vengeance, boasting 96% of netbooks shipping with Windows-family OSes (Source: NPD Group).
Linux Netbooks appear to be doomed to repeat the sad history of desktop Linux.  However “free” netbook Linux may be, consumers have not found it sufficiently compelling to leap across the historical functionality gap (perceived or real) from Windows.  Moreover, as netbook capabilities creep up on low-end notebook specs, consumers expect to be able to run familiar Office applications, and to browse, view and play web sites and multimedia content just as they do on Windows desktops.
Despite significant advances in content handling over earlier generations of desktop Linux, netbook end-users found Linux-based devices unwieldy and apparently unreliable. Not only did new device sales falter, but buyers returned the devices in droves.
Quite simply, the rationale for Linux-based netbooks proved irrational in the real world:

  • Leveraging Linux for a lighter BoM (Bill of Materials) proved less appealing when Microsoft cut XP licensing fees and ever-cheaper memory, storage and CPUs closed much of the notebook-netbook capability gap.
  • Netbooks with full PCI buses and other PC-like capabilities eased XP installation, especially for OEMs already familiar with notebook design, like Taiwanese ASUS and Acer.  Asian Tigers, while adopting Linux for more deployed embedded applications, are still more comfortable with Redmondware for mass-market consumer products.
  • Consumer reaction to first-generation netbook-centric look-and-feel proved unenthusiastic.  Ubuntu, while a great Linux desktop, failed to impress mass market users; Moblin 1.0 wasn’t ready for prime-time and Mobile 2.0 arriving in 2009, was too late.
  • Netbooks intended to leverage emerging Cloud Computing relied on the vagaries of end-user network and cloud access, sending consumers scurrying back to client-based productivity software on better-provisioned Windows-based devices.

The combination of these factors, when pushed through multi-tier consumer product sales channels, proved to be a retail nightmare and a dead end for Linux and Open Source.

Next week I’ll again pick up this topic, comparing how Linux the mobile Linux dynamic differs depending on whether you come “down from notebooks” or “up from mobile phones”.

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    • turn.self.off
    • May 13th, 2009

    the only user of ubuntu on the netbook market is HP and dell, and they came late to the show.

    asus uses xandros, a system based of a old debian fork.

    acer uses linpus, a similar old fork of fedora.

    msi used a fumbled install of suse.

    moblin 1 was never intended for netbooks, intel was then focused on mid’s, a scaled down concept similar to the microsoft umpc.

    • oiaohm
    • May 14th, 2009

    NPD Group USA only numbers.

    Netbook game was never going to be the fastest game. The issue was number of Linux devices on market in the USA.

    Supply and demand. No supply no demand.

    End result is MS has had to massively price cut. Nasty result. Even that the last 3 months income report MS has sold more units of software than ever before they made 30 percent less profit and having to go into division cutting.

    MS has not won this round. They are hurt. Linux is the first thing in MS history that has really caused them pain.

    Market share is not everything. Income is also important. Don’t not matter if you have 99% market if you don’t have the income from it to keep you a float.

    The item that killed there price is still there waiting to take another bite. Introduction of arm processes will force price lower again.

    • Fruit
    • May 14th, 2009

    Also, why is cloud services an advantage of linux? Other OSes can use that too, right? Such claims make me think if relying on “cloud” isn’t actually caused by lack of normal local software, a disadvantage in other words.

    • Brett
    • May 14th, 2009

    You completely overlook the fact that, after being caught off guard by netbooks, MS bent over backwards to get XP-based netbooks on the shelves.

    Then, they forced the linux netbooks off the shelves with exclusivity agreements and strong-arm tactics.

    It’s rather difficult to sell Linux-based netbooks when the retail outlets have been bullied by MS to only stock XP-based netbooks.

    • Redmond’s “negotiating skills”, while potent, were not the only factors involved. I still aver that OEMs recoiled from high return rates and end-users looked at these devices more like notebooks than as a new and innovative category. See my next blog next week as I explore this dynamic.

  1. I think sadly at the moment the Linux distributions available are ‘Windowsy’ enough for the average user to become familiar with rapidly, though I hope this will change in the not to distant future.

  2. It’s about USERS ! I’ve introduced many clients and friends to Mac OS/X and Ubuntu and every time I get them back onto Windoze. Why? Because they can’t wrap their brain around the differences. I can’t even get my GF to use OpenOffice instead of M$ Office because “it’s different”. Well dhooh! A helicopter doesn’t have the same controls as a car … It needs to move in 3D not 2D! I’d prefer that only qualified helicopter pilots drove helicopters and not Mrs Jones from across the road who can’t even park parallel to the kerb.

    • very simple answer
    • May 18th, 2009

    the answer is very very easy. you cannot buy most of the good netbooks with linux but only with windows. hence you have to buy the windows version and isntall linux by hand. even if the manufacturer sells linux than the linux version has less ram and a smaller hdd etc…THAT ist the problem…

    • I take issue with insisting that “good netbook” = “fat netbook”. OEMs do indeed put Linux on their slimmer models, especially to hit and maintain low pricepoints. The challenge is the perception that more RAM, HDD and faster CPUs mean a better user experience — absolutely true for Windows but not necesarily so for Linux.

      This consumer perception falls in line with my main thesis – if purveyors of netbook Linux follow the path of desktop/notebook Linux, they are doomed. That is why I titled this blog “Up from phones, not down from notebooks”.

      In any case, it will be interesting to see what comes out of Computex in Taiwan next month — more Windows netbooks or better Linux devices.

  3. That’s awesome!!! I have been looking for a netbook for my boyfriend. And how to choose it? Which brands is the best? I saw many blogs about this but yours is the best. Thank you.

    • Russ Reese
    • March 7th, 2010

    I am convinced that MS must be offering a substantial discount to manufacturers that includes an agreement that they not sell the same hardware with a competing OS for less $. In other words – I think that they are probably getting Win7 for x and if they did not agree to this, then Win7 would cost them 2x or even 3x.

    Why do I think this? Look at Dell’s website – identical hardware with Win7 vs ubuntu cost the same – or sometimes more for ubuntu. How can that be? There must be a reason.

    The manufacturers know that most consumers want Win7 now – so they would be crazy to sacrifice the discount from MS just to sell a few linux machines. And besides, it means higher margins on the few linux machines they do sell.

    But this sort of maneuvering by MS can’t last forever. I have two machines – one with windows and MS-Office and one with ubuntu and OpenOffice and I can do all the same things with both – sooner or later the MS momentum will slow and this sort of power play won’t be as easy for them.

    • Jim Bicknell
    • July 28th, 2011

    I’ll start off my comment with a quote from oiaohm

    “Market share is not everything. Income is also important. Don’t not matter if you have 99% market if you don’t have the income from it to keep you a float.” All the opinions given here about Microsofts’s business tactics are probably true. That is their defense against a competitor who builds a product then gives it away and it’s a good defense. “Business is war” said the Japanese while they were destroying the American automotive industry. I think Microsoft feels the same way.
    I have used two different linux distros in the last 5 years and I liked them both, one of them(Xandros) however has died, their software repository and update sites are inactive. It just seems like they lost the inspiration to live up to the claims they were making when I first started using the distro. The omly claim that held true was that the software woudn’t cost me anything
    I am ready to use another linux distro but I worry that all linux distros will eventually meet the same fate as Xandros.

  4. U created quite a few terrific ideas within your post, “Will
    Linux Survive on Netbooks? LinuxPundit Weblog”.
    I’ll remain coming back again to ur webpage soon. Thanks a lot -Fanny

  1. May 18th, 2009
    Trackback from : Open Source mobile edition

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