The emerging "netbook" market's shaping up as a place for Linux to have a good deal more free reign, especially among those who aren't married to Windows and use the Web as their desktop. What few desktop applications they use -- instant messenger clients, the browser itself -- are typically available in open source implementations and in the repository for the distribution being used on the device. Here Linux is proving itself to be a good fit, since it can be sculpted to match the exact hardware it's being run on.
That said, Linux on netbooks has its own share of potential thorns. For the end user, the biggest benefit for Linux has traditionally been price, but Windows-equipped netbooks are available at prices that are highly competitive with Linux models. As I write this, Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 with 8 GB of storage is being offered with an Ubuntu variant for $359 -- but the XP-based version of the same system is available for $399. (An Ubuntu-only version with 4-GB storage is available for $349.) What's more, XP itself is getting yet another reprieve from being phased out.
Linux on netbooks also has to be well assembled. If the user has to tweak heavily to get basic things working, they are no better off -- in fact, most likely a good deal worse off -- than they were with Windows. MSI itself experienced a good deal of negative press about the MSI Wind netbook, which shipped with SUSE Linux but had mediocre hardware support out of the box. Problems like these are strong arguments for a reasonably unified Linux base: if netbook manufacturers create custom (shilling for cross-incompatible) versions of Linux for each machine out there, then Linux's appeal in this space will remain marginal.
Widely circulated comments by Andy Tung, MSI's director of sales in the United States, noted that their market research had found a return rate for Linux-powered netbooks that was something like four times the average for Windows-powered machines. Much of this could be attributed to people who buy entirely on the basis of the price and don't pay much heed to the software; i.e., they go in expecting to find Windows and bail immediately when they don't.
Linux netbooks are going to need to compete in ways other than price -- which means, by extension, Linux itself needs to compete in ways other than price. And while people do want alternatives to Windows, they'll choose only if they know precisely what they're getting, and if the benefits are wholly clear.
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