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Microsoft's Netbook Woes Also Mean Linux Yays ... Right?

When Microsoft specifically cited netbook PCs as a big reason for its weakening sales, the "L word" didn't get mentioned by name -- but it wasn't difficult to tell this was the flip side of that news tidbit about Linux-equipped netbooks being returned. So what's this mean for Win7 vs. Linux in what is fast becoming the battleground for the new desktop?

When Microsoft specifically cited netbook PCs as a big reason for its weakening sales, the "L word" didn't get mentioned by name -- but it wasn't difficult to tell this was the flip side of that news tidbit about Linux-equipped netbooks being returned. So what's this mean for Win7 vs. Linux in what is fast becoming the battleground for the new desktop?

Jim Zemlin, executive director at the Linux Foundation, put it this way when asked for a few words on the subject: "Even if netbooks don't take away market share from Microsoft, they are already taking away margin, as there are now alternatives forcing them to lower prices. With netbook sales projected to jump 50% in 2009, and with an estimated 30% of those netbooks shipping with Linux installed, Linux can expect to see solid growth this year, even as sales numbers stall in the industry as a whole." (He also cited the middling response to Vista as more bad news, which no one needs to be convinced of.)

Estimates aside, does all this really mean Linux eating Win7's lunch -- at least on the netbook side? Maybe not the whole meal, but what I do see happening is the emergence of a computing market that couldn't have existed before, one where Windows is optional at best.

The netbook gives a certain set of people exactly as much computing as they need. It's to computers what the $0 bare-bones handset is to cell phones. Those of us who don't need and don't want to shell out extra for all those bells, whistles, and blinky lights now no longer have to. Having Linux on board to run the whole show further drives the cost down.

There are plenty of people who don't see netbooks as a great thing. Witness this piece (warning: NSFW language) by Ted Dziuba at The Register, in which he spits and roasts the netbook in favor of smartphones, but ignores two things. One, no student I've ever met wants to type on a smartphone-sized keyboard to do their homework, BlackBerry addiction be darned; two, there's no discussion of how Linux makes it possible to have a smartphone or a netbook or a full-sized computer share that much more functionality without the prices becoming unmanageable.

Then again, Ted doesn't think much of Linux as an end-user OS anyway, even if we are indeed seeing a whole generation of computer users emerge for whom the Web is their operating system and have no particular attachment to any program.

The New York Times also gave voice to the unease of many big-league computer makers when they published a piece on how the $200 netbook is making more expensive computer variants a no-go for consumers -- or, at the very least, making it possible to buy exactly as much computer as you want for your money.

I don't see Windows disappearing entirely -- at least not until another generation of computer users has come and gone. But I'm hitting pretty hard on Linux being a big reason this drift away from Windows is possible now, since Linux the flip side of Windows in many ways other than the obvious ones.

Look at it: Windows is a brand, Linux is a technology that can surface under any number of brands; Windows is proprietary; Linux is not; Windows is limited in its elasticity and incarnations by its one maker; Linux can be bent and shaped any way you want it. Against odds like that, Windows can only continue to maintain so much headway -- especially now that people are not simply relying on the same mix of Windows / Office / Internet Explorer to get around and get things done.


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