Linux Netbooks: 3 paths to a bright future

Posted on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 by Erlik

Last week I made a summary of the current state of the Linux netbook market. Today I will show you that Linux netbooks are at a crossroad. They can reach a bright future and a significant market presence through 3 different paths: the smartbook path, the cheap path and the power path. I will explain how each path will lead the Linux netbook to market dominance in a specific niche.

The smartbook path

As I explained previously Qualcomm, Nvidia and other manufacturers of ARM based processors are releasing processors powerful enough to power a netbook. This is effectively starting a war with Intel and it's Atom processor. Netbooks based on ARM designs have many advantages over Atom based ones: they will be much lighter, have longer battery life and cost less. Even if these processors are less powerful than the Atom, they have acceleration circuits for video decoding, so with the right driver they should still be able to play HD video better than an Atom based machine.

This is entirely to the benefit of Linux, as the ARM based processors can only run Linux, Symbian or Windows CE. Since Windows CE is rather a bad product with poor third party application support Linux alternatives like Android or the ARM versions of Ubuntu and Xandros should be able to get a large part of the market. Linux may be coming late to this market however: The netbook version of Google Android will probably not be ready until next year, and the ARM versions of Ubuntu and Xandros are still new and unproven. It is probable that the first machines will come with Windows CE, but that these will be replaced by Linux based machines next year.

The cheap path

As Caitlyn Martin pointed out recently, the price of entry level Linux netbooks is dropping to incredible lows! You can now get a basic Linux netbook for less than $200. The original Sylvania GNET is now selling for around $179 on Amazon. Last week I pointed you to other excellent deals on Linux netbooks. As these little machines become more and more commoditized the prices will have to drop, and the price of the Windows license will be harder and harder to justify. This will be especially true for subsidized netbooks, as the network operators will want the cheapest option possible and may not see much added value in Windows.

Microsoft has no intention of lowering it's prices, in fact most rumors suggest that Windows 7 starter will cost twice as much as Windows XP to OEMs. This means that the netbook manufacturers will be forcer to increase the price of their Windows based products. This will widen the price gap between Linux and Windows based netbooks even more. If you add the fact that Linux netbooks require less resources than their Windows counterparts to deliver a smooth user experience you have a situation were Linux based netbooks will be ideally placed to sell as cheap companion machines. Windows netbooks on the other hand will look more and more like expensive and underpowered mini laptops. Cheap subsidized netbooks have another advantage: since the 3G network operators have their own "Brick and Mortar" shops this will create an extra outlet for Linux netbooks on which Microsoft has little control.

The power path

The two paths above are nice if what the buying public wants is a companion machine, but a lot of people would prefer to have a netbook that could replace their notebook. Microsoft however has been kind enough to provide a trump card to Linux in the power user market too. You see, Microsoft has put a lot of unreasonable restrictions on the hardware that can be sold with Windows 7 starter edition. This mean that Windows based netbooks are very limited in HDD space, memory and performance. Microsoft is doing this to try to push consumers toward much more expensive machines featuring pricier editions of Windows 7.

The result however is that Linux based netbooks can be much more powerful than their Windows equivalent. Archos recently released in France an Ubuntu netbook with a 500 Gb HDD and 2 GBs of ram. Because of Microsoft's restrictions such a powerful machine could not be sold with Windows 7 starter or Windows XP. This means that for the mini PC enthusiast that wants a powerful machines with lots of local storage the only option is in fact Linux! This has the added advantage that power users mostly shop online, removing the "Brick and Mortar shop" barrier is mentioned last week.


As we have seen there are a lot of ways for Linux netbooks to assert their superiority to Windows based machines, but there is work to do. For the smartbook path to realize the ARM compatible Linux distributions will have to be more polished than Windows CE, feature a lot of extra software and be available soon. The cheap netbooks will need to be sold in the high street as well as online, something that is not the case now. More power Linux netbooks need to be released, as the Archos is currently available only in France. On the whole I am optimistic though, as the failure of one path does not necessarily means the failure of the others! There will be at least one path that will successfully lead Linux netbooks to their bright future.

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11 Responses to "Linux Netbooks: 3 paths to a bright future":

Anonymous says:

There may be 3 paths, but that does not include the path the Linux is on.

Linux people need to provide more netbooks that really work. Not that mostly work, or work only for those users who do nothing other than surf the web for a year and then dump their netbook.

All this cheerleading and M$ criticism needs to be replaced with a new mentality. The mentality would be driven by a desire for real success over cheerleading.

We've all seen glowing reports. No doubt some of these are for-real. Some people are happy. However, for many of us, who can be easily found in forums across the web, the glowing reports are mysteriously unrepeatable. Key features don't work well. Basic things like hybernate, update, and even sound.

Some talented individuals can run Linux on anything. I don't have that much talent. Not with netbooks. I've been with computers for decades and Linux for years and I've made some things work well, including rock-solid Linux systems. Success with netbooks has been limited - not totally unacceptable, but far too limited.

Given extensive experimentation on two Linux netbooks with multiple versions of Linux, and given the continued complaints that are common enough in forums, it's clear that serious problems remain. Yet the cheerleading continues.

We don't need rah rah articles. We need more honest criticism that discourages developers from releasing systems that do not work well. Linux cheerleaders have given marginal netbooks a free pass, just because Linux is installed.

If netbook Linux, in it's current condition, is successful on the new low-power netbooks, M$ can easily respond with a competitive OS. The bar is low enough that M$ will succeed, even with the customary cumbersome insecure product.

Anonymous says:

Regardless how you see Microsoft, they will always be around and always have their fingers in any market that will give them a few bucks or will at least disrupt their competition.

I found a few more news articles regarding this technology and I want to contribute it as I know there are a few eyes out there.

Take a look over at you will find the current up to date news all in one place.

Overall, I'm curious to see what happens once all the devices finally are actually on the market ready to be purchased.

josvazg says:

Yet another far too optimistic post/article.

We, the linux community, should concentrate in making linux a quality alternative OS.

Linux can't compete in INERTIA (Windows has it all) nor can it match Windows hardware support (as the INERTIA drives it) but should compete in quality.

The main strenght in Linux is openness and flexibility, if anyone doesn't like anything about linux they can change it to their needs with some effort. As Linux matures this effort is less and less significant.

But some weakness remain:

1) The state of Linux graphics is currently a mess. Even though Linux is ligther than Windows on the same hardware, a bad 3D experience can tip the users otherwise. If they fireup GoogleEarth for instance and they have worse framerates in linux than in XP/Win7 (or even Vista), are you going to start trying to explain that GEM + DRI2 plus... are going to be great (if they ever get finished) and blah, blah blah??? Another thing that can't be tolarated by any user as of 2009/2010 is that a normal video won't play smooth cause your compiz doesn't like your intel graphics card on kernel 2.6.x and blah blah blah!!! Do you think users wanto to hear that crap?

1a) We complain about NVIdia for not providing opensource drivers or open up specifications, but they DO deliver the drivers that give you the best performance and in par with what they deliver for other OSs like Windows.

2) Sound is AGAIN unstable thanks to pulseaudio crap... I have to restart it with a custom shell script in my desktop when the sound fades out and disappears (usually when I start to use the mic on the headphones) And this problem is shared by all distros with current pulseaudio releases.

Stop the propaganda and help to enhance the quality of Linux. Visit more the Phoronix site and the bug reports in launchpad,etc.

JohnBauley39 says:

Strange thing.. I keep seeing these posts about how Linux 3D support is so terrible, how Firefox crashes all the time, how suspend and hibernate don't work, yet on both my little old think pad and my Asus board desktop, no problems. And I have yet to install a Linux sound driver. My Wifi card is a cheap no name card that worked after downloading ndiswrapper, and half an hour reading websites.. After that it was easy. Audio.. No problem. Video.. Great. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong.

As to the market penetration of netbooks.. What do you expect to happen. This is a new market for them. Companies used to selling Microsoft only software will take time to get the knack. At the moment, the more they muck about with Linux, the worse it does.

MSI quited higher return rates, but failed to mention the bad choice of a business oriented distro and poor configuration out of the box. In contrast, Dell have done well. 30%+ Linux netbooks sold,and similar return rates to Windows. Possibly because they are not trying to hand hold the buyer too much, and are willing to use a real distro that is supported outside Dell.

Personally, I can see the three prong attack happening. The cheap ARM units will not run Windows. Only CE.. which is basically useless on anything other than a phone or PDA. Linux is jsut a compile and a tweak away from lots of software though. The middle Atom units will still chug along outside America, and the higher end units will gradually be produced with instructions on how to dual boot or install Windows if the customer desires, but with Linux sold in the stores. And just wait until the Chinese factories who are currently making the gear for the big names get into direct selling and keeping the profits. They could cause an explosion of dirt cheap ARM sub netbooks. Big ones, small ones, no need to worry about big American companies cramping their style. Just build and sell.

Big bad Microsoft knocks on the door.. Meet Bigger badder Chinese business people who will eat them alive.

Ricardo says:

I'm fairly new to linux, i started my reintroduction at Ubuntu 7.04, but have made an effort to learn. I have to say that there are always little things that irk me when i upgrade. Just one example, i used to love samba, i used to brag about it real bad. I'm not sure if it was a flaw in samba or if it was just that good, but as soon as i would turn on my Ubuntu machine, i had instant access to all Windows shares on my network. At Ubunut 8.10 i don;t know what happened, but now I'm lucky to see one workgroup. Which means i have to copy all my music onto my Ubuntu Laptop, at 120 Gigs I'm running out of space fast. So that's an example of little things that break, that really shouldn't.

In my opinion there are many things that the community does to hurt linux. Have you seen how many rants there are about calling it GNU/Linux not Linux, it's pointless, and looking at it from a person researching a great new operating system this is a turn off. I have also seen many many many post from Linux newbies ridiculed which again is pointless. So our community needs to change there attitude, we all know Debian is the best distro. Just kidding put the keyboard down.

Change the Linux image. Linux first off is a god ugly name. I say rebrand it as Penguin. Check this out "Windows break, but the Penguin adapts". It can't get more true than that. Plus lets get it right, people that are pretty knowledgeable about computers have an easier time making the switch, so create different environments based on use. I'll admit that i love the layout of the HP Mini MIE. I think its great for people that BS on the internet. Not to say that you can't get things done, but it'd be a bit awkward for me. But think along those lines. Linux needs a pitchman. Rest in peace Billy Mays but that gut would have sold Bill Gates a Redhat server.

All together Linux has a great future, i recently wrote on my blog about a mini race that happened in the late 90's early 2000's about Windows and Mac fighting for the living room. I'm 30 years old, so i'm sure most of the readers will remember, but ultimately Linux snuck in via DVR. I'm sure it's not what we have in mind, but that's the beauty of linux, options. I think its great that someday my Open Office File will be viewable on my Phone, or that I'll be able to throw my favorite show on my thumbdrive so i can see it at a friends house. Or that I'll be able to tell the icebox to defrost so that i can clean it when i get home. Endless options. There are new televisions coming out with DVR's build in, i bet i'm not going to see a Window Logo, or a bitten Apple, but I'm also ot going to see the ever adaptive Penguin either. Maybe it's time to change the License to say the Penguin must be displayed. That'll get people wondering. But enough already i need some sleep.

toni_uk says:

Well, I think this article is far too optimistic. As long as netbooks are not delivered with a proper Desktop rather than a mickey mouse Linpus, no user will take it seriously.

Most important though Linux on the Laptop needs a Killer Appliction that is missing big time: Full Synchronisation with MS Windows PCs. Most people use their Netbooks alongside their Home/Work PC. Being able to sync Calendars, To do Lists, important Docs etc easily with Kontact or Evolution would make the Linux Netbook a winner from the usibility side. deliver it with a software disc for their windows PC (as they know it from all their other gadgets) and off we go.

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Abe says:

It is amazing how an article about the potentials of Linux on the netbook gets turned around to attacks on Linux using perceived weaknesses and draw backs by MS lackeys and shills who claim to be pro-Linux. Actuality, you are nothing more than AstroTurfs with one beginning the attack and the rest follow in a coordinated fashion. Let me tell, I am impressed with you tactics but, if you think you are succeeding, think again. Like honest Abe said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."
Here are the real facts kiddos and copy cats :
Due to the vastness of this subject, I will only cover Netbooks and leave the desktop alone since we all know how miserably MS failed at the attempt to curb Linux proliferation by releasing Vista. MS spent millions, if not billions, to shove Vista down the throats of the consumers with the help of OEMS, who didn't like and couldn't handle Vista. Vista was a huge fiasco and no one liked it or saw any benefits in adopting it. Vista pretty much was useless and a big waste of money for the enterprise and end users in general. No wonder why MS rushed into spending more M/Billions to release Windows 7, which so far doesn't show any improvement over Vista.

The Netbook models started with the OLPC project, which is based on Linux if I might add. Even with all the FUD from MS & Intel trying to derail it or stall, it was very successful and taking market share of higher up laptops. MS is still trying to protect its business model by down playing the netbook and forcing OEMs to limit their units resources and capabilities. that is not succeeding either because netbook brands keep enhancing their units and reducing its cost at the same time.

Every major Netbook manufacturer based their initial release on Linux Not Windows. When MS saw the netbook becoming a major threat to their business model, they used their monopoly leverage to sway manufacturers using the carrot and the stick approach. That will fail too because consumers are getting more enlightened and aware of MS devious tactics. Why would a consumer want to buy a unit with Windows and have to pay for it and pay more for additional applications they need and use when they can get Linux with all applications for a very nominal cost if not for free!

Now lets talk about your claims. I have been in IT for many years (don't want to say how long). I know that there is no perfect OS and I also know Windows pretty well (many years of server and desktop management and support). I have 6 computers at home that are used by myself, wife and our three children. All of them run Linux. They do have few issues initially, but once they are set up, they don't fail, easy to use, no viruses even there are no anti-virus software, and most of all, I didn't have to pay a penny of any software we need. There are some applications (games and school software that are only made for windows), those run on windows installed on Linux VirtualBox. The computers we have are all older than 5 years, yet the latest Linux runs fine on them. No problems with drivers, video's configurations, sound, networking (Ethernet and wireless), and gadgets like webcam, digital camera and other. We don't have to use Windows except for the apps. mentioned above.

(Due to post limitation, see rest of post next)

Abe - Cont... says:

Now for the netbooks. I don't have one but was planning on buying one from Asus. I changed my mind now after their latest fiasco claiming that Windows runs better. I don't believe them because if that was the case, why did they release the initial model with Linux? Wasn't Windows better then? And if it was, why didn't they use Windows to start with? And if it wasn't better then, what changed in XP to make it better now? XP didn't change at all but rather, MS changed Asus using their monopoly leverage and enticement for both of them to rob the consumer. Any way, I am looking into Acer Aspire one netbook or may be Dell and Asus can go take a hike. (Due to post limitation, see rest of post next)
Aah, the problems you claim Linux has on netbooks! Where were those issues when netbooks were offered by the manufacturers with Linux? Did they all the suddenly appear? Not at all, when the manufacturers issued them, they developed the drivers and configured the machines with no problems. Linux is open and they all have the resources and information about Linux to release a perfectly good configured computer. They still can do that but only when they want to or when MS allows them to. Linux is more than good enough for all kind of devices and computers. The problem is, when manufactures or OEMs don't do that, consumers are being obligated to do it on their own. With their strong enthusiasm but limited know how, they are trying to install Linux on their own to avoid the manufactures ploy to stop them. You see, OEMs are on it with MS to rob the consumers. OEMs aren't only making money by selling hardware, they are also making money on selling crappy XP OS with it. They also making making money on selling Malware, anti-virus ware and such and MS is happy to sell them additional applications which they can get for free when using Linux.

Well that felt good, especially after thinking of all the suckers and those who want to play idiots fretting themselves after lining the pockets of MS and OEMs with their own hard earned money.

I never had to do that and never will. Thanks to FOSS and to its developers and distributors.


Abe says:


What is a killer app?
Killer apps is software that one like better and prefers using over another. Mainly because it does a better job for them and enjoy using more.

To me, Linux and all the FOSS apps are killer apps. I totally dropped Windows and there is nothing I need to do on a computer I couldn't do with Linux.

Synchronizing with Windows!

Linux can communicate and inter-operate with Windows where ever possible. Linux user can connect to Windows computers, file sharing via Samba, documents via OpenOffice, accessing drives locally by mounting NTFS & VFat file systems, etc...

In regards to applications data synchronization, you can't blame Linux for not being able to do that. Blame it on MS for keeping their interfaces secret, and suing anyone who interface with their application using reverse engineering or otherwise. Why don't you ask MS why they don't synch. with FOSS application as all they need of technical information about FOSS applications are openly & freely available to them?

Anonymous says:

You're not up against Microsoft as far as wanting people to choose actual laptops for desktop replacements. Your also up against ALL the hardware manufacturers who want the same thing. You know what the price points are on netbooks/smartbooks? Nothing...