Has Microsoft Killed the Linux Netbook?

By Craig Buckler
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Windows and TuxAsus launched their ground-breaking Eee PC at the end of 2007. The hardware may have been basic, but the netbook concept was revolutionary. The device was a truly portable, fully-functioning laptop that was no more expensive than a top-end mobile phone and a fraction of the price of similar-sized PCs. The machines were ideal for developers working on the move.

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

  • The operating system was free — a $100+ OS license made no commercial sense on a $300 computer.
  • Useful open source software, such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org, could be included at no extra cost.
  • The OS had lower system requirements than Windows Vista, which certainly would not work on the early 2GB models (as a comparison, my 8 year-old 512Mb desktop boots Ubuntu 9.04 significantly faster than my 3 month-old 3GB Vista laptop!)
  • Linux had lower requirements than Windows XP, and Microsoft was dropping sales and support for that OS.
  • The Eee PC was marketed as a user-friendly internet-enabled device rather than a laptop.

The 20-second boot time, attractive graphical interface, and range of usable software received rave reviews. Children and novice users loved the system, whilst geeks could access the underlying OS or install other Linux distributions. Stocks of the Eee PC sold out instantly and, within months, every major PC manufacturer had announced their own Linux-based netbook range. Linux’s future looked good.

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

  • Windows XP’s life was extended to 2010.
  • Cheaper XP OEM licenses were issued for $25 to $40 (conditions apply to ensure manufacturers do not install XP on full-sized laptops).
  • Windows 7, due for release later this year, was modified to support netbook specifications.

I’m sure the Microsoft sales team also offered sweeteners such as bulk discounts and copies of MS Works. However, the Windows customer support line was possibly the most attractive cost-saving option for many OEMs.

The re-introduction of XP had a dramatic effect:

  • 90% of netbooks now have Windows pre-installed.
  • MSI claimed that Linux-based netbook returns were four times higher than Windows. Although this has been disputed, I suspect many people did return a netbook because it did not run MS Office or their favorite application.
  • All the major UK high-street PC retailers now refuse to stock Linux-based netbooks.
  • Netbook sales account for 20% of the laptop market and the figure is rising. Would that have occurred with Linux-only devices? We will never know.

You cannot blame Microsoft for their actions. They are a commercial business and they still receive less money for Windows shipped on a netbook than a desktop or laptop. Although OEMs can choose not to install Windows, Microsoft successfully prevented Linux getting a stronger foothold in the OS market. That may restrict user choice but, given that choice, most people still prefer an OS they know.

Perhaps the biggest problem is market confusion. Windows has inevitably caused netbook specifications to increase. Are you buying a high-end netbook or a low-end laptop? Categorization may not matter, but many netbooks are evolving into resource-hungry, fragile, and expensive PCs. The popularity of the original Eee PC proves that many people still want a simple and reliable device which handles day-to-day email and browsing.

Have you purchased a netbook recently? Did you opt for Windows or Linux? Did you have a choice? Was the specification or price higher than you wanted?

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  • bigstu

    i brought a dell mini 10 which comes with lunix.
    Got the cheap version with a 10 gig SSHD as i only want this for web browsing and accessing data from our server, so that was a nice cheap option, but there was problems with it and dell were being rubbish at letting me log a support ticket so i actually wiped the hard disk and put a stripped down version of windows 7 rc on it and it runs like a dream :)
    So when i get windows 7 retail which i would put on my main PC i will also put a copy on the netbook

  • Windows has inevitably caused netbook specifications to increase

    Is it really Windows, or is it due to the inevitable demand for more and better features, combined with progress in our abilities to produce more for less?

  • I bought a refurbed eee901 with Xandros but installed eeebuntu on it shortly after receiving it. It’s great for what I need it for and pretty quick. I love the quick boot time.

    My thought is that it isn’t so much that MS killed the Linux netbook as much as the users did. I just don’t think that most people want that kind of change and aren’t really willing to “relearn”. I tried to get my kids to try Linux, but they always wanted me to put Windows back on. The wife won’t even discuss it. In a nutshell, Linux is too disruptive for the vast majority of users.

  • WebKarnage

    Is it Microsoft that has killed the Linux netbook or is it the big retailers choice to push Microsoft products as their already under-trained staff knew nothing about Linux? I would guess they have had equal effect. If your average customer comes in and doesn’t see the 2 versions available, guess what? they don’t ask for Linux!!
    Windows is still viewed by the average consumer as a ‘safe’ choice I suppose. Even as someone who uses Microsoft stuff as little as possible, I have to admit, get an old PC and try getting Linux to work on it, and then try Windows XP. Windows will generally work well at first, then steadily drift downhill as the system self mutilates. Linux can (and usually does) take a long time to get it to work sensibly at all, but if you get it right, it will then (but only then) eventually provide you with a better result after a year or more as it keeps going well. Most people never find out about the long term results, having given up on Linux a long time before. This is often people’s experience of Linux if they have any at all.

    Once Windows 7 has been out properly for a year or so, we’ll see if Microsoft has ‘tamed’ the registry etc in it, or re-installation will still be a regular occurrence for heavy users.

  • I think Microsoft has killed the Netbook market altogether. Though surprisingly capable the purpose of netboooks was always to be used as basic internet and office machines. You absolutely do not need Windows to do these tasks. The differences between netbooks and Laptops has been muddied and netbooks are becoming slower. Its like putting the Iphone OS on an old-school Nokia and calling it an Nphone.

  • aQustic

    I bought the MSI Wind a year ago, but didn’t have the option to go for a Linux OS version at the online store I used, so it was XP for me.

    I am however following the development of both Moblin and Jolicloud, and they both look very promising. If they live up to their promises I’ll at least go for a dual boot with XP and Moblin/Jolicloud.

  • I agree, @artemis. I bought my original eee because I wanted a cheap, highly portable machine to do simple things on the move: email, web browsing, SSH/FTP, and minimal use of office software. People now seem to want to run Photoshop on them, and then complain the screen’s too small/it runs too slowly. That is not what they are for.

    Going in the other direction I suppose that now you can use an iPhone or iPod Touch to do most of what I do with my eee, and that might also be hitting the netbook market. But they are considerably more expensive than my eee!

  • @LewisClarkTrail

    Is it really Windows, or is it due to the inevitable demand for more and better features, combined with progress in our abilities to produce more for less?

    It’s probably a combination of factors, but Windows certainly couldn’t run on the early netbooks (not without serious nLite-ing first). How many solid-state harddisk models exist now? Nearly every model now uses a standard, more fragile, disk with several hundred GB.

    If you want more power and more features, why not just buy a laptop? I see a netbook as quick, low-resource, additional PC — not a replacement. Linux does just as good a job, if not better.

    WebKarnage is correct about retailers and users choosing Windows because it’s what they know. However, few people don’t worry about changing their mobile phone OS when they buy a new handset (unless you count iPhone users). Linux may have had a chance if netbooks had continued to sell as big PDAs or hand-held net devices rather than small laptops.

  • yogomozilla

    An interesting headline given Google’s recent announcement.

    “Killing” a Linux netbook is pretty implausible.. just because a computer comes pre-installed with a version of Windows doesn’t mean you can’t install a better Linux distribution in place of it… it’s just a device. Technically it’s also possible to get a refund for the Windows license if you choose not to use it… legally it may be difficult.

    Personally, I just don’t get why anyone would want to install a 10 year old operating system on a present-day device. Once again we come up against the problem of people thinking that the OS is the Device.

  • Tim

    I don’t think it’s MS that killed the market. I think the users did. Windows is familiar, therefore they created the market demand for it. Users generally don’t understand that it’s not just a small laptop, it’s supposed to be a purpose specific device (ie surfing the web). So demand has dictated they evolve into tiny laptops. So who killed them? “We” (the consumer market) did.

    Personally I don’t want another device to use and carry around in specific situations. I’d rather have a small laptop than a beefy laptop and a netbook for those occasions where I need ultra portability. And if I’m going to replace my laptop with a netbook, I don’t want to be disadvantaged by sacrificing features. This is why we have a ridiculous market for handheld devices that are music players, phones, GPS trackers, email sender/receivers, etc. People want device convergence. Netbooks, in their original form, promote divergence or “yet another charger syndrome”.

  • Consumers voted with their dollars. Just like when retailers tried carrying Linux desktops at a lower price, those that bought them were more dissatisfied with their purchase than those that bought Windows PCs, and return rates were much higher.

    Netbooks are not gonna exist much longer. The middle of the market is filling in as ultraportable hardware comes down in price. If you can get an ultraportable (real processor, more RAM, better video, etc) in a 10″ form factor, there’s no need for the hardware that can’t run more than a browser.

    And with Windows 7 trimmed down to be faster than XP on limited hardware, that’s what’s going to be on ultraportables/netbooks in stores next year, not Linux and not “ChromeOS”.

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  • Oscar

    “many people did return a netbook because it did not run MS Office or their favorite application”? What about OpenOffice it’s the same but even better because it have no cost. I’m thinking about other “favorite application” made for MS but I can’t remember anything (as Get a Mac campaign says, ‘calculator…?’)

  • shpling

    The Linux Netbook hasnt been killed because it has barely started to exist. With the emergence of Moblin, Ubuntu Netbook remix and Googles ChromeOS we will start to see more netbooks that are truly netbooks rather than low fat notebook. ARM based netbooks are set to become really popular and extremely cheap. These super low cost next generation netbooks are where linux will triumph. Windows 7 will have its place in the low fat pc/notebook market.

  • Tom

    The only reason I bought a netbook because I wanted a device that was cheap (really cheap), booted quickly and had a solid state drive. I figured that crippling it with Windows would defeat the purpose! Although I also was kinda interested in trying out linux as well. By the way I’m writing this on a £141 acer aspire one (I’ve only had it a couple of weeks, but I’m already sold, although adding and updating software isn’t something I’d expect everyone to be happy doing, saying that it comes with most of the stuff people would need anyhow!).

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  • Jeff

    In a nutshell, Linux is too disruptive for the vast majority of users.

    … Meaning people are unwilling to learn something new? I’ll grant you that as a general principle, but my 19-year-old son and my 73-year-old mother have been using nothing but Ubuntu now for nearly a year and they both love it! My mom switched after her computer was wracked by a variant of the Conficker virus. My son switched because he despised Vista.
    No, Microsoft hasn’t killed the netbook market for Linux. But Microsoft has conditioned its users to demand more and more of everything from their hardware, and more is not always better.
    Sometimes it’s better to have specific tools for specific jobs, and not to carry a Swiss Army knife when a simple penknife will do. That was the excellent premise of the netbook. Linux allows virtually infinite customization to suit the user’s specific tasks, while Windows encourages a one-size-fits-all mentality. And that size is invariably XXXL.
    But as others have said, the people speak with their pocketbooks. That’s fine, but it would be wrong to conclude that this is truly an informed decision.

  • mmj

    I purchased a netbook (Eee PC 900) with Windows XP installed, and have since replaced Windows with Linux (Debian).

    I didn’t lose $$$ though. This was the model that was priced more cheaply with Windows XP than without in Australia (to great controversy at the time).

    One observation: Windows’ memory management doesn’t work too well with cheap slow SSDs (lots of pauses).

  • markfiend

    All the major UK high-street PC retailers now refuse to stock Linux-based netbooks.

    Do you honestly think they had a choice? It’s obvious that Microsoft has (yet again) used its position unfairly to force competitors out of the market.

  • anonymous

    I have always been a huge fan of Linux. But to me it’s clear, stores like Sam’s and BJ Wholesale club that once offered Linux as an alternative to Microsoft could not sell the OS. In addition, having installed and used Linux for many years, I can honestly say when things go wrong the average user won’t know how to fix the issues. (The learning curve is to steep)
    But then when it comes down to it, is the end user willing to learn. And the answer is…

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  • A2W2

    I’m probably biased in that I have been a Linux user for 13 years. I have bought a refurbished Dell Mini 9 with Ubuntu 8.04 which I gave to a niece on a recent trip to China with Ubuntu 9.04 on it. Because I didn’t have time to show them how to get on the network via their DSL service, they promptly got someone to put Windows XP on it after I left. I am looking to buy another one on eBay and again I will put Ubuntu 9.04 the moment I have it.

    Here is what I look for in a netbook: RAM >= 1GB, SDD >= 8GB, CPU == Atom (anything that takes 5w or less of power). I would stay away from Windows as I don’t want Norton or McAfee keeping my PC hot looking for virus.

  • boltronics

    I brought the EeePC 4Gb model with a custom GNU/Linux pre-installed. Didn’t like it, so I replaced it with Ubuntu. Much better! 4Gb was just a tiny bit too small for my liking, so I brought a 16Gb SDHC card, used LVM to create a 20Gb logical volume across both devices and ran cryptsetup across that to have all my data encrypted by a passphrase I enter upon boot. I upgraded the memory from 512Mb to 2Gb since it was extremely cheap to do so. A few tweaks to the GNOME desktop and the graphical interface is very usable even at such a small resolution.

    One thing I didn’t like is that there is no vesa mode in the BIOS for 800×480, so I had to use a 915resolution-patched version of GRUB2 to get the framebuffer (for showing my bootup text) at the correct resolution. Also, the BIOS should have an option to center text in the middle of the screen at the correct resolution if it’s smaller than native. I *hate* stretched text, and it’s a shame Asus didn’t put just a little more thought into the BIOS design for GNU/Linux users. Updating to the latest official BIOS made absolutely no difference. My 13+-year old Toshiba Libretto has no such trouble!

    So instead I’m also using a different BIOS that allows me to run the CPU at 900MHz instead of the factory default 630MHz. While it doesn’t have the 800×480 mode added to the VBE modes, gives a significant performance increase at the cost of battery life.

    In the last month, I’ve decided that my encrypted file system running over the top of a slow 4Gb SSD and a much slower 16Gb SDHC card isn’t the best option for storing gigabytes of virtual machine images, so I have strapped a 7-port USB hub onto the back of the LCD with lots of ducktape. The hinges are solid enough that there doesn’t seem to be any issue in holding the extra weight, and the EeePC still fits into the stretchy carry pouch it came with.

    Each USB port has a dirt cheap 1Gb USB stick, and I have them all thrown together into a software RAID0 device using MDADM, which I run ext4 over the top of. This gives me a read speed of 39Mb/s without encryption – much quicker than the internal 4Gb SSD when not using encryption. Unfortunately with the wires sticking out the back and the many flashing LEDs I’ve been told the EeePC now looks something like a bomb. Yet to try taking it through airport security… :)

    Overall, I’m loving the EeePC. The price was fantastic, and I love that I can literally throw the laptop across the room to somebody while it is turned on without fear of having my data corrupted. I’ll probably never buy a laptop or netbook without an SSD again!

    It unfortunately took three returns before I found one without dead or stuck pixels. Eventually my wife brought one after seeing how much use I get out of the thing, but hers ended up with a stuck pixel – but it only shows intermittently so we didn’t notice it straight away! I wonder if this was such a common problem on the Windows XP models… maybe this is the real reason for all the extra returns. ;)

  • BigBert

    Bought the Eee701, wiped off Xandros and installed EasyPeasy + Skype. Ideal “Video phone”!