Did Microsoft kill the Linux netbook?

Asus launched its revolutionary Eee PC at the end of 2007. The hardware might have been basic, but the concept of the netbook was revolutionary. The device was a truly portable and fully functional laptop that was no more expensive than a high-end mobile phone and a fraction of the price of similarly sized PCs. The machines were ideal for developers working on the go.

The most unusual aspect of the Eee PC was the Linux operating system. The operating system was based on the Xandros distribution but heavily customized to support the hardware. Although Linux is a risk, it was an obvious choice for Asus:

  • The operating system was free – an OS license over $ 100 made no business sense on a $ 300 computer.
  • Useful open source software, such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org, could be included at no additional cost.
  • The operating system had lower system requirements than Windows Vista, which certainly wouldn’t work on early 2GB models. (For comparison, my 8 year old 512MB desktop PC boots up Ubuntu 9.04 much faster than my 3 month old 3GB Vista laptop!)
  • Linux had lower requirements than Windows XP, and Microsoft was decreasing sales and support for this operating system.
  • The Eee PC was marketed as a user-friendly Internet-enabled device rather than a laptop.

The 20-second boot time, attractive GUI, and range of usable software received rave reviews. Kids and novice users loved the system, while geeks could access the underlying operating system or install other Linux distributions. Stocks of the Eee PC sold out instantly, and within months all the major PC makers announced their own lineup of Linux-based netbooks. The future of Linux looked good.

Microsoft had to take action. Windows is the most profitable part of the business and it was essential to protect their business:

  • The lifespan of Windows XP has been extended until 2010.
  • Cheaper XP OEM licenses were issued for $ 25- $ 40 (conditions apply to ensure that manufacturers do not install XP on full-size laptops).
  • Windows 7, slated for release later this year, has been modified to support specifications for netbooks.

I’m sure the Microsoft sales team have offered sweeteners like wholesale discounts and copies of MS Works as well. However, the Windows customer helpline was perhaps the most attractive cost-cutting option for many OEMs.

The reintroduction of XP had a dramatic effect:

  • 90% of netbooks now have Windows pre-installed.
  • MSI claimed that the yields of Linux-based netbooks were four times that of Windows. Although this has been disputed, I suspect that many people have returned a netbook because it was not running MS Office or their favorite application.
  • All major UK PC retailers now refuse to stock Linux-based netbooks.
  • Netbook sales represent 20% of the laptop market and this figure is increasing. Would this have happened with Linux devices only? We will never know.

You cannot blame Microsoft for its actions. This is a business venture and they always get less money for Windows delivered on a netbook than a desktop or laptop. While OEMs can choose not to install Windows, Microsoft has been successful in preventing Linux from gaining a foothold in the operating systems market. This may restrict the user’s choice, but given that choice, most people still prefer an operating system they are familiar with.

Perhaps the biggest problem is market confusion. Windows inevitably increased the specifications of netbooks. Buying a high-end netbook or a low-end laptop? Categorization might not matter, but many netbooks are moving into resource-intensive, fragile, and expensive PCs. The popularity of the original Eee PC proves that many people still want a simple, reliable device that handles email and day-to-day browsing.

Have you recently bought a netbook? Have you opted for Windows or Linux? Did you have a choice? Were the specs or price higher than you wanted?

About Jon Moses

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