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Game over for Linux netbooks?

May 13, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 4 views

A well-known Linux analyst has published a blog saying that Linux is failing in the once-promising netbook market. Bill Weinberg's blog in LinuxPundit paints a bleak picture for Linux on netbooks this year, while a CNET story suggests that netbooks in general are seeing high… returns.

(Click for larger view of Dell's new Inspiron Mini 10v netbook, which ships with Ubuntu)

Is the once promising Linux netbook revolution an illusion? So believes embedded Linux stalwart Bill Weinberg, who details the reasons why Linux has lost ground to Microsoft in the new super-mini notebook market in his blog, “Will Linux Survive on Netbooks?”

Bill Weinberg

“Linux netbooks appear to be doomed to repeat the sad history of desktop Linux,” writes Weinberg. “However 'free' netbook Linux may be, consumers have not found it sufficiently compelling to leap across the historical functionality gap (perceived or real) from Windows.”

Signs of trouble in the Linux netbook world emerged last fall after a promising start in which some analysts figured that Linux had captured as much as 30 percent of the market , compared to one percent in the desktop market in general. It all started with an MSI executive who claimed that returns of its Linux-based MSI Wind netbooks were more than four times higher than those of Windows XP netbooks. Then in early April, a Microsoft executive announced that an NPD Retail Tracking Service study showed that Microsoft owned 96 percent of the netbook market and that Linux netbook returns were four times higher than with Windows.

A Canonical (Ubuntu Linux) executive and others quickly disputed these figures and other allegations in the blog. For one thing, it has been noted that the NPD story apparently only looked at brick-and-mortar retail instead of online sales, and did not cover international sales.

Still, other anecdotal evidence, as well as a recent study by Ovum, appeared to suggest a slippage in Linux netbook market share. Ovum did not publicly report exact percentages, but reported that the Linux netbook share has dropped considerably in recent months.

Bye bye BOM boost

We're still waiting for some reliable figures on Linux netbook share, but it appears to have decreased sharply since last year. In his LinuxPundit blog, Weinberg suggests it's time for the Linux community to wake up to this reality and address those shortcomings that can be improved.

Weinberg walks through the touted attributes of Linux netbooks, including lower Bill of Materials (BOM), more flexible system architecture, more customizable look-and-feel for OEMs, and the ability to leverage web apps and cloud computing resources. He then explains why these supposed benefits were either illusory or quickly squelched due to savvy moves by Microsoft.

Perhaps the key game changer was that Microsoft made deep cuts in XP licensing fees, reducing the price gap. In addition, many vendors were more comfortable selling Windows-based systems than Linux netbooks, writes Weinberg. Consumers, meanwhile, preferred a familiar Windows netbook interface to experimental Linux UI's, he adds. Among other issues mentioned in the blog, the cloud computing resources that are supposed to spur future netbook use are not yet widely available, let alone supported by netbook vendors and Linux distros.

Skytone Alpha 680
(Click for details)

The blog was the first in a series, so perhaps Weinberg will point out some hope for future success. The general consensus, however, appears to be that Linux distributions need to continue their progress toward becoming more user friendly, and that Moblin v2 for Netbooks and Android should offer some new blood in this area.

Android in particular has a ways to go before it might be an ideal platform for netbooks, yet it may soon find its niche in low-cost ARM-based netbooks that are subsidized by wireless carriers. Android-based ARM netbooks selling for under $200 could bring Linux back to owning a sizable percentage of the market, suggest some analysts. Skytone recently announced the first Android-based netbook: the ARM-based Alpha 680 (pictured), which sells for $250.

Finally, Weinberg notes that Linux MIDs are also suffering compared to the Windows-based varieties. In truth, however, there appears to be scant evidence that MIDs of any flavor have yet to sell very well, in part due to the fact that, unlike netbooks, they have not yet been widely marketed.

Intel admits to high netbook returns

Part of the Linux netbook problem may be that netbooks are being returned at a higher rate in general compared to notebooks. According to a CNET blog, an Intel executive has stated that some of its computer resellers selling Intel Atom-based netbooks have seen 30 percent return rates.

The Brooke Crothers story quotes Intel marketing chief Sean Maloney as saying at an investor meeting yesterday that the main reason for the returns was that the resellers were not being honest with customers about the shortcomings of netbooks versus Pentium-based notebooks. Maloney was then quoted as saying that Intel was recommending that resellers follow the lead of certain European resellers who were more upfront about the difference in capabilities, and were not encountering such high returns.

Meanwhile, Intel's most recent quarterly earnings report noted that revenue from its Atom CPUs was down 27 percent. This may suggest that netbooks are not as recession-proof as smartphones appear to be. The LinuxPundit blog noted another possible reason, stating that “ever-cheaper memory, storage and CPUs closed much of the notebook-netbook capability gap.” Indeed, the CNET story notes that netbooks may be further pressured on the high end by new low-cost, ultra-thin notebooks referred to as Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage (CULV) notebooks, which are due to arrive this summer.


The LinuxPundit blog on Linux netbooks may be found here.

The CNET blog on Intel and its netbook returns may be found here.

This article was originally published on and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

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