Has Microsoft Killed the Linux Netbook?

Craig Buckler
Craig Buckler

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?