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The Sub-$200 Netbook: A War That Windows Can't Win

Some pundits claim that Linux has already lost the netbook war against Windows. From where I sit, however, the real battle is just heating up.
Some pundits claim that Linux has already lost the netbook war against Windows. From where I sit, however, the real battle is just heating up.A few weeks ago, I discussed Freescale's plans to launch a new, low-power processor architecture for use in netbooks. These systems will be designed to retail for less than $200 and will run several Linux-based operating systems, including Ubuntu Linux and Google Android.

It isn't hard to find PC industry-watchers who think Linux has already missed its opportunity to unseat Windows by seizing control of the netbook market. They base their opinions on a number of legitimate points, including the fact that with Windows 7 on the way, Microsoft will soon fill the gap that Windows Vista left in the company's product lineup.

Companies like Freescale, however, suggest a very different ending to this story.

First, bear in mind that Freescale's processors are based on the ARM chip architecture. While ARM can't compete against Intel-based designs in terms of sheer processing power, they pose a legitimate competitive threat in low-powered, ultra-portable devices like smartphones and netbooks.

That is especially true when one cracks the $200 netbook price barrier. This is a market segment where the Intel Atom will have a hard time competing -- assuming that users are willing to trade off performance in exchange for lower prices and longer battery life.

I'm willing to make that assumption, and I don't think it's much of a stretch.

Then there's the question of what will run on netbooks using the Freescale processor. The Linux kernel already runs quite nicely on the ARM architecture. Google Android, thanks to its roots as a Linux-based smartphone OS, will have no problem adopting to Freescale, and distributions like Ubuntu will find it relatively easy to make a similar leap.

It's a new world for the netbook market to explore -- and it's totally off-limits to Windows. It will stay that way, too, unless Microsoft is willing to engage in some colossal, and very risky, software-engineering gambles.

Even if Freescale fails, other upstarts are waiting in the wings. Nvidia and VIA, for example, have both launched processor designs that pose a legitimate threat to the Intel Atom.

A new generation of even cheaper and more efficient netbooks is great news for companies that will put these devices to work in a variety of new and interesting ways. In the meantime, the best way to prepare for these changes is to ensure that the applications your company uses -- and the data formats those apps create -- take interoperability and portability very seriously.