The Path to a Linux Netbook Comeback – Look to Google Android

Last week, I made a case for rethinking the role of Linux in mobile computing all together – eschewing the endless game of catchup inherent in the desktop/notebook market (as it applies to increasingly able netbooks), that Linux-based netbooks need to look Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks.

Readers responded, most interestingly to debate whether netbook vendors ever really wanted to ship Linux as a long-term solution, or whether ASUS and others had just “run up the Linux flag” as a way to get Redmond to negotiate better price points.

I was happy to read that Matt Asay saw potential for mobile Linux-based devices as I still do – his Open Road blog entry “Hit Microsoft where it ain’t” is definitely worth reading, as is Dana Blankenhorn’s ZDnet blog on “Linux and the Channel“.  Sam Dean narrows the discussion from the whole channel down to the essential issue of product differentiation in his thoughtful blog entry “Linux Netbooks – What’s the secret sauce for sales?

But is it really too late for Linux on Netbooks?

Is this potentially vibrant new marketplace doomed to share the fate of desktop Linux? Real hope lies in learning from the desktop debacle and re-inventing the open source OSS as a first-class service delivery vehicle.  In that vein, I have listed some suggestions for netbook manufacturers, purveyors of Linux and the developer community:

Focus on integrating into operator programs

Even if you think that operators face disintermediation and dumb-pipe obsolescence, they still “own” the networks and are the drivers of current and next-generation rollout. They also represent a channel focused on service delivery as opposed to desktop hardware and accompanying expectations for margins etc.

Build on handset design concepts, not desktop expectations

If consumers wanted a Linux desktop experience, they’d have long since bought into actual desktops running Ubuntu and other consumer friendly distros. By contrast, Linux actually provides the foundation for a swath of very successful handsets, from the Motorola Ming, which handily captured a full percent of the Chinese mobile market – that’s 30-40 million units for a single handset model – to NEC Panasonic handsets in Japan to current generation Motorola ROKRs and RAZRs and the exploding market of Android-based devices.

Consumers buy and use these devices not because they run free software in general or Linux in particular, but because they deliver operator services in stylish and functional packages.

Focus on user experience, not just BoM

Even if operators are intent on squeezing costs to preserve services margins, Linux-based mobile devices must still provide compelling user experiences. Put aside the KDE vs. GNOME debate and focus on helping both operators and ISVs deliver applications – in this space the competition isn’t Windows, it’s the iPhone apps store, it’s Blackberry enterprise integration and outside the US, it’s the SymbianOS ecosystem.

Rather than focus on the “mobile desktop”, provide applications resources for rich graphics, multimedia, gesture-based MMI, skinning, and personalization in a netbook-sized package.

Look to Android as netbook platform

Many Linux purists dismiss Android as the insidious invention of the Google Borg and as a shiny tomb for the Linux kernel buried inside it. However, it may be the only viable vector for bringing Linux and open source to programmable mass-market devices. Android is cropping up everywhere – originally targeted to appeal to Tier II and III Asian handset OEMs and ODMs, it now constitutes the core of platform strategies at Tier I mobile suppliers like Samsung, Motorola, and LG. More importantly, Android caters to operator requirements for a services-centric customizable user experience.

Whether or not you like Android for its own sake, it creates opportunities for partnership among Google, operators, ISVs/OSVs, and other third parties. As a platform and a phenomenon it is building bridges across market chasms once considered unspannable. Just consider HTC, once a bastion of Windows Mobile handsets. The Taiwanese OEM is today the first and leading provider on phones based on Android.

Google, OHA members and others have also telegraphed their plans to deploy Android as a netbook OS. Early rumblings have emerged from Freescale for a $199 netbook based on their i.MX CPU, and other mobile-savvy semiconductor suppliers like TI and Marvell are likely to follow suit with their ARM-based offerings. Artesian efforts have also surfaced, demonstrating Android ported to currently available netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC.

Android Beyond Mobile

Android for operator-subsidized netbooks will also gain momentum and credibility from related deployment and crossover onto other content delivery devices, like digital TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs, satellite receivers and automotive in-vehicle infotainment systems.  Earlier this week Embedded Alley announced delivery of a development system targeting MIPS-based devices.  MIPS Technologies and their architecture licensee RMI also announced plans for Android support.

As always, I appreciate reader comments and feedback.  I am especially interested what readers think of the current state of Android and its chances for success in mobile devices and beyond.

In the next and final segment of this topic, I will talk about trends in the underlying mobile processors, and then zoom right up to the synergies among netbooks, Linux and the Cloud.

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  1. Great post, Bill, one that I expect to write about shortly.

  2. What baffles me is why netbook manufacturers have stopped producing small SSD systems (like the Aspire One 8Gb SSD). My mother-in-law is 84 and she wouldn’t have a clue that she is running linux. She just calls it her ‘magic box’ and she emails and browses like there is no tomorrow. Many users simply have no need for the extra size of a hard drive. My son took one backpacking through Europe and the robustness of the SSD drive kept it working throughout the trip. Would it have survived if it had been HD based? I doubt it. And presumably SSD weighs less than HD. So I think netbook manufacturers have lost the plot.

  1. June 5th, 2009

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