With the recent 96% Microsoft netbook fiasco (i.e., poor excuses for tech journalism, as usual), I see a lot of smug comments from the Linux community about the upcoming ARM-powered Linux netbooks.
The argument goes something like this:
Yeah, Windows may dominate the netbooks now, but Linux will come back. Windows doesn’t run on ARM yet, and the ARM-powered netbooks will be cheap and have long battery life. If they sell netbooks for US$200 with a 15-hour battery life, then who would pick a more expensive Windows option with less battery life?
I would love Linux to succeed on netbooks, but look what has happened already? Let’s review, shall we? First, the One Laptop Per Child project introduced the idea of a very low-cost laptop for children in developing countries. Then the Classmate PC came out as a rival. Both Microsoft and Apple tried to edge their operating systems on to the OLPC laptop. What happened? Well, not only is the Sugar interface on the X0 rubbish, but OLPC even started entertaining putting Windows on its laptops, despite its earlier refusals in objection to the use of proprietary software.
Then there were all these rumors about Asus coming out with a $200 very small laptop. People got all excited. $200? Really? Wow! What happened? The Eee PC. It was a big hit! Was it $200? No. It was $400. And it had a 4 GB SSD drive. Later, they came out with a $300 version with a 2 GB SSD drive. At first people marveled at these small things and even praised the Linux interface (with very large icons) as something anyone could use. Then they realized it was some crippled version of Xandros and promptly started to replace Xandros en masse with Windows or Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution).
Other vendors started jumping on the bandwagon, because they didn’t want to lose out in this new netbook market, so Acer, MSI, Sylvania, and HP all ended up coming out with their own versions. The prices either got higher or stayed the same (but with better specs).
And then Windows XP started appearing. Unfortunately, if you want people to actually start using Linux, preinstallation is not enough. First of all, that preinstalled version has to be preconfigured, too, and thoroughly tested. Then it has to be properly marketed. It also should be a proper Linux distribution and not a crippled one (no Linpus Lite, no customized Xandros).
Pretty soon, Linux became synonymous with enormous cartoony icons and lack of easy software installation. Windows won. That, and a few FUD stories thrown in about return rates being higher for Linux netbooks (even though that was for only MSI, not Dell or Asus), and Microsoft has basically won the battle.
And my suspicion is that it’ll win the war, too. The real problem is that OEMs are not invested in seeing Linux succeeding. If Linux is a cheap option that will get them some revenue, OEMs will use Linux. But if Windows will get them even more revenue, they’ll use Windows. And a lot of Linux users aren’t helping, either. This whole mentality of “Well, if the Windows option is better, so I’ll just buy that and install Linux myself on it” will just limit future Linux options, as executives at OEMs will just say “We tried to offer a Linux option, but even the Linux users will just buy Windows and install Linux over it themselves. What’s the point?”
Will ARM be $200? We don’t know that. Will ARM have amazing battery life that the Windows netbooks won’t compare to? We also don’t know that. Some of the more recent Windows Eee PCs boast up to 9.5 hours of battery life.
Call me cynical. Call me pessimistic. But I see ARM either falling through the cracks or Android falling through the cracks, or ARM netbooks being marketed badly or overpriced or configured badly. I will be extremely surprised if Ubuntu shows up on an ARM-powered netbook that’s US$189 with a 15-hour battery life, a comfortable keyboard, a large hard drive, a slick look, and no “We recommend Windows for home computing” at the top of the vendor page. The vendors will keep recommending Windows, and Microsoft will keep pushing Windows 7. And it’ll bring out its ARM smears and Android smears. Microsoft will go down fighting or not go down at all. I have to confess, at this point, I’m very tempted to just throw in the towel and get a Windows netbook and install Linux myself on it, even though that’ll just add to Microsoft’s bottom line and its boasts about the demise of the Linux netbook.
You vendors, you’d better come out with some cool Linux netbook soon… and don’t let Apple steal this new market away the way it did with portable audio players and the iPod.