Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why the Linux netbook really crashed and burned

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (sjvn to his ardent fans) penned a little missive last Friday (24 June 2011) in which he attempted to blame the fall of the inexpensive (read cheap) Linux netbook on Microsoft (and to a lesser extent on Intel). I'd like to take a few hundred or so words and disabuse him of that fallacy.

A Very, Very, Very Brief History

The netbook was the response to One Laptop Per Child XO-1 and Intel's subsequent response, the Classmate PC. The XO-1 was initially targeted to cost no more than $100 for distribution in the developing world. The Classmate PC wound up costing around $250, a benchmark that was to establish the real low-end for the netbook. Both were announced in 2006 and released the following year.

Asus saw an opportunity and released the first official netbook, the Eee 701 in September 2007. It came with 512MiB of memory, a 900MHz Celeron M underclocked to 630MHz, 4GiB SSD, and Xandros Linux. In January 2008 Asus shipped a version of the Eee 701 with Windows XP. It wasn't until the 900 series that the Intel Atom was introduced.

It should be noted that until the release of the second generation Pineview Atom processors introduced in December 2009, the original Asus Eee 701 with its underclocked Celeron M was the best device as far as user experience is concerned. When Intel offered the Atom series battery life was traded for performance, and performance tanked considerably for the next two years. By the time an Atom processor was released that at least matched the old Celeron M, the netbook's performance reputation was already extensively damaged and never fully recovered.

While there are other netbook offerings from other manufacturers such as MSI and HP and Dell, Asus is the vendor that usually comes to mind when you think of netbooks. They offered Linux originally and continue to offer Linux. But the Windows version is what sells the most for them.

The Real Reason It All Failed

Every version of the Eee comes with either Windows or Linux as the OS. The problem is that most users want Windows, a fact that so enraged David M. Williams for iTWire that in December 2008 he called them "dumbasses" for making that choice. Yes, Microsoft made Windows available for use on the netbooks. At that time, from what I read, it was costing all of $3/netbook for the version of Windows XP for netbooks.

All of this was hashed out in 2008 when it became brutally obvious that Linux was failing as a netbook OS. I wrote about it in January 2009, and as noted Williams wrote about it in December 2008. Where was sjvn when all this was happening?

What I wrote about the failure of Linux on notebooks in January 2009 still applies today:
... I find it highly hypocritical that Linux apologists have for years cried out about lack of choice in the personal computer marketplace, referring ad nauseum to the Microsoft tax (and yes, as have I). It is indeed sad then when given an unfettered opportunity as the one afforded by the introduction of the netbook that the buying public chose Windows, but that's what choice is all about. And if you want it to be fair, then you have to respect it and live with those choices whether you personally like them or not. It's an important lesson one gets to learn when raising children to be adults.

Those millions of consumer's choices cast Linux in a harsh and unflattering light. It isn't Microsoft being evil that's the problem here, it's Linux behaving badly, specifically when you attempt to sell it as a viable Windows alternative to the general consumer. For them it isn't. And until such time as enough Linux hackers climb down out of their ivory towers and come to the startling revelation they need to write for someone else other than a clone of themselves, it never will be. So get over your bitching about being rejected and fix up Linux for them or else STFU. If you can't give consumers what they want then they'll find someone who will. It's ruthless and Darwinian, but that's the real power of choice in action.
sjvn's conclusion that Microsoft was evil in offering Windows for netbooks so that it could knock Linux out is fundamentally flawed. The market spoke, and Linux lost. Add to that the rise of the tablet with Apple's iOS and to a lesser extent Google's Android, and there is no real reason to purchase a netbook anymore. For the majority it's not a matter of price, it's a matter of quality and usability. Unfortunately both Linux (circa 2007/2008) and the netbook hardware it was running on were lacking in both.


Going back to the argument that Microsoft sold Windows XP at a loss to knock out Linux, there's just one small problem with that argument. If it's true then the conclusion is you can't give Linux away. It also fits with the observation from China and elsewhere that many would rather pay for a cheap (read: pirated) version of Windows than run a free version of Linux.

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