Linux and Windows battle for netbooks

boxing gloves

ANALYSIS: The war between open source and Microsoft Windows to be the operating system of choice for netbooks is hotting up, with some major skirmishes last week. But who is winning?

Netbooks running open source were the star of last week's Computex show, which saw a flurry of demonstrations of Linux, Moblin and Android-based devices, noted Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation.

"We don't need to declare the year of the Linux desktop anymore. This week alone was pretty darn good," Zemlin said, speaking of last week's Computex in his blog.

"Having spent the week at Computex, the place where you see all the things that people are going to find in Bestbuy and Amazon six months from now, it is clear that Linux has a critical role in client computing," he said.

Last week at Computex, many companies announced moves to use open source systems with their netbook products, Zemlin noted. Acer will support Moblin across its lineup, while Qualcom's new smartbook idea was demoed with Android, Moblin and desktop Linux operating systems.

In addition, Dell launched the new Inspiron N Linux-based notebook, while Linux headed up the fastboot contingent too.

Microsoft's moves

But his open source enthusiasm is in stark contrast to news last week that PC World was pulling all Linux-based netbooks from its shelves in favour of devices running Microsoft Windows systems - although the shop will keep selling Linux systems online.

Asus also distanced itself from reported plans to use open source Android on its netbooks, saying the project was "not a priority". That news came shortly after Asus and Microsoft launched a new marketing campaign claiming netbooks were "better on Windows".

Earlier this year, Microsoft claimed it had taken 96 per cent of the market for netbooks.

Netbook changes hit Linux

Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom told IT PRO that Linux is perfectly suitable for cheap and cheerful netbooks, and said open source gained a good head start over Microsoft especially after it initially planned to let only three applications run at a time on netbooks running Windows 7.

But he added that netbooks haven't stayed as initially envisioned, with the devices evolving into smaller laptops. "They have become far more powerful and functionally rich and people want them to look and behave like the larger devices they are used to not as some hybrid between their phone and the desktop," he said.

"Microsoft has woken up and realised that this market is burgeoning and that Linux could be a threat, and has responded by removing the limit of three apps, and also in making sure that the cost of the OS is not an overwhelming issue," he said, adding that the arrival of the well-reviewed Windows 7 operating system will help Microsoft's market positioning even more.

Support issues

Longbottom added that Linux will suffer because there's no real ecosystem of support around it, especially compared to that enjoyed by Windows.

"With Linux still seen as a techie tool for desktop use, and with no consumer magazines or consolidated messaging from the Linux brigade... there is no reason why a general consumer should go for Linux," he said, suggesting average consumers prefer the ease of using Microsoft technology.

And if the demand is with Microsoft, then that's where the retailers will focus, he claimed. "For the vendors, it is not worth their while becoming the spokespeople for Linux," he said. "Standard rules of supply and demand apply, and these companies will go where the demand is - which just hasn't shown to be Linux."

Click here to find out if Linux can win netbooks back.