Linux and netbooks were supposed to be a match made in hardware heaven â€“ a free open source operating system helping deliver low-cost mini-notes to the masses. But as the netbook market moves into the mainstream the specs get more serious and the price tags inch higher Microsoft is once again enjoying the fruits of its desktop-fuelled dominance.
As it is Australia already favours Windows in the netbook space. While most manufacturers offer overseas customers a choice between Linux and Windows XP the majority of netbooks sold locally are available only with Windows.
This includes Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 HP’s 2133 Mini-Note the MSI Wind and Lenovo’s IdeaPad S10 (we suspect the same will apply to Toshiba’s forthcoming NB100). Only Acer and Asus list both Linux and Windows on the menu for their respective Aspire One and Eee PC netbooks.
Even so Acer reports that its XP-powered Aspire One represents 95% of sales in Australia according to company spokeswoman Lucy Millington. And in an interview with Laptop Magazine MSI’s Director of US Sales Andy Tung says that the company’s netbooks running SUSE Linux are returned four times as often as the Windows XP models.
â€œWe have done a lot of studies on the return rates and haven’t really talked about it much until nowâ€ revealed Tung. â€œOur internal research has shown that the return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks but the main cause of that is Linux. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks.â€
The reason appears to be rooted in unfamiliarity with the OS interface and perhaps even the relative complexities of locating third-party software compared to off-the-shelf Windows XP packages which the buyer may already have for their desktop or laptop.
â€œPeople would love to pay US$299 or US$399 but they don’t know what they get until they open the boxâ€ reflects Tung. â€œThey start playing around with Linux and start realising that it’s not what they are used to. They don’t want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store.â€
Tung’s observations were echoed by Gerry Carr marketing manager
at Canonical (which manages the popular Ubuntu OS). â€œWe don’t know what the XP return rates are. But I will say that the
return rate is above normal for netbooks that offer open-source
operating systemsâ€ Carr told Laptop Magazine in a follow-up interview.
He endorsed the notion that buyers are not at ease with the very different look and feel of Linux. â€œUnclear selling is
happening typically online. The customer will get their netbook sent
to their home and they imagine to find something like a Microsoft
desktop but they see a brown Ubuntu version. They are unwilling to
learn it and they were expecting to have Windows.â€
Seeking to further press home its advantage Microsoft has loosened the hardware restrictions necessary for a netbook manufacturer to load Windows XP on their system. While XP netbooks were previously limited to a screen size of 10.2 inches the revised spec permits models with displays up to 14.1 inches â€“ a scale which definitely pits netbooks against conventional notebooks. At least two manufacturers are rumoured to be working on netbooks with screens larger than 10 inches. Touchscreens are now also explicitly permitted.
Another limitation likely to be revised is the CPU speed which was previously set at 1.6GHz to match Intel’s Atom processor but may need to move upwards when the Atom’s core is lifted to 1.87GHz according to the chipmaker’s roadmap.
However Microsoft has retained an OEM ceiling of 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive as out-of-the-box specs although customers can upgrade the netbook post-sales.