New Moblin Netbooks in the Pipe

At the recent Linuxcon Conference in Portland, Oregon, there were hints of new Moblin-powered hardware being announced at the upcoming Intel Developer Forum. Normally, this would be moderately interesting news, but some of the ambitious comments made by Linux luminaries at Linuxcon merit further examination. People from the Linux Foundation, Intel, and IBM spoke at the conference, and it’s evident that they see the netbook market as the epicenter of the movement to raise Linux’s profile in the consumer space, and whittle away marketshare from Windows. Update: Intel has also announced Moblin 2.1 for phones.There are a couple of interesting quotes in the PC World coverage of the conference:

“We need to stop pretending that it will be a drop-in replacement [for Windows] and make it something better,” said Bob Sutor, vice president for open source and Linux in IBM’s software group.

Linux failed to retain its early lead in netbooks because it was trying to emulate Windows. “We were trying to win at their game. We in the Linux community are trying to be successful by mimicking what someone else is doing successfully. To me, that is a losing strategy,” he said.

Linux got an early lead in the netbook market because of its favorable economics. The profit margins were so thin that the manufacturers were drawn to Linux because of its lack of licensing fees. But Linux-based netbooks lost momentum early on due to two factors: Microsoft’s extremely aggressive price-cutting of Windows XP OEM licenses from the bargain bin, and, perhaps more importantly, the netbook vendors’ lackadaisical attitude about software development. To a large extent, after putting a fair amount of creativity into designing small and cheap laptops, these vendors failed to put a complementary effort into adapting the available Linux distributions to the hardware and smaller format. More importantly, they failed to support netbook users with a halo of web-based services that would have made using, troubleshooting, customizing and upgrading their new Linux netbooks fun and easy.

So when typical computer users bough these new mini-laptops, they found themselves not only in an unfamiliar environment, but unable to use these machines the way they would normally use them – that is, by installing Windows software on them. In comes Microsoft with cheap XP licenses, and the rest is history.

As much as we can all scoff at Apple’s claims that the iPhone is their answer to the netbook, there’s a lesson to be learned there. New iPhone users are faced with a radically unfamiliar computing environment, user interface, form factor, and software ecosystem, even more so than a Linux netbook buyer. So obviously the iPhone completely failed in the marketplace. Oh yeah, it didn’t. And not only because of the reality-distortion field. The iPhone overcame the unfamiliarity hurtle because its radical user interface was well-suited to its form factor, and because Apple built a scaffolding around the iPhone experience that (eventually) made routine personalization of the device easy.

The netbook’s strength and weakness is that it is a rather familiar form factor, so people expect it to act like a laptop PC. I believe that people will always be more accepting of alternative operating systems when they come in unfamiliar packages, such as a mobile device, DVR, NAS box, or alarm clock. But failing to target a very popular mini-laptop market just because there’s a built-in expectation of Windows-like functionality would be a pretty timid strategy, and it doesn’t look like Intel, IBM, and the various Linux distros are ready to throw in the towel.

When I first learned that Intel was putting money behind Moblin, I’ll admit I wasn’t enthusiastic. Intel is one level abstracted from the OS market, since they don’t make devices themselves, and I doubted that such a big company would be able to sustain interest in such a seemingly non-core project. But I’m coming around, because I now see that it’s really in Intel’s best interests. Intel had an easy time of it all through the eighties and nineties, because every computer user in the world was perpetually unsatisfied with the speed of their computer. But early in this decade, Moore’s Law turned around and bit Intel on the ass, when suddenly everybody’s three-year-old computer was still faster than they would ever need for their routine computing tasks. Intel has spent the past decade desperately trying to think of things for regular people to do with computers that would require vastly faster processors (video editing? virtual reality? weather simulations?) but have so far come up short. And where the real action is these days, in mobile and novel computing devices, Intel is working at a disadvantage, since it has robust competition in the low-power space, such as Freescale and ARM. But for devices that span the gap between low-power mobile devices and high-power PCs, Intel dominates with the Atom, and if they can figure out how to get mid-power computing devices to catch on big-time, then they’ll have a strong opportunity in that market.

As the presenters at Linuxcon pointed out, Microsoft is about to give the Linux netbook market a big gift: for strategic reasons, Microsoft can’t continue to sell Windows XP on any device. Everything has to move to Windows 7. But there’s no way that OEMs will be gettgng Windows 7 licenses for next to nothing like they were for Windows XP.

“What I hear when I talk to netbook vendors is Microsoft does not want to repeat the extremely aggressive pricing with XP Home. They want to significantly increase the price for Windows 7 netbooks,” said Dirk Hohndel, chief technology officer of Intel’s Open Source Technology Center.

So here’s Linux’s big second chance. Microsoft will likely let them lead on price again, and with Intel beind Moblin, there’s a good chance that the next generation of Linux netbooks will have not only a robust underpinning, but a pleasant and different user experience. Many different players (including Intel and Novell) are already discussing setting up “App Store” type sites for Moblin devices that are likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of users. Adding to this perfect storm is the rise of cloud computing and the usefulness of apps like Google Apps, which chips away at Microsoft’s desktop stranglehold.

Microsoft, of course, will play to its strengths, and the fact that Windows 7 is a very good desktop operating system and should run quite ably on varous kinds of lighter-weight devices and enable users to tap into the vast library of familiar apps will ensure that it’s a major player in this market, even if it will be a struggle for them to balance profit margin and marketshare in this space.

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation says that within a year, “no one will buy hardware or software” and that the market will look a lot like the mobile phone market, with wireless carriers giving devices away for free with service contracts. “Microsoft’s economics don’t fit into that at all,” he said. I’m not sure I want to live in that world, but if that world is coming, then he’s probably right.


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