Of netbooks, tablets and Linux's revenge
by Glyn Moody
Microsoft may have rebuffed Linux's early advance in the domain of the emerging netbook, but Glyn Moody thinks that the rise of the tablet has neutralised the "must-have" nature of Windows.
Five years ago, I wrote an article about the relatively new class of netbook computers. I suggested the ultra-low price machines running GNU/Linux posed a problem for Microsoft. That's because it needed to charge something for Windows, pushing the price of Windows-based netbooks above similar systems running free software. As I wrote:
This combination of good functionality and out-of-the box ease of use with a price so low that it's almost at the impulse-buy level could prove problematic for Microsoft. Until now, there has been no obvious advantage for the average user in choosing GNU/Linux over Windows on the desktop, and plenty of disadvantages.
Low-cost netbooks suddenly gave people a fresh reason to look at free software. The new systems running GNU/Linux were highly portable, rugged (since they used solid state storage), booted up quickly, and didn't crash. It's true the software was different from the usual Windows desktop, which was a problem for some people, but as a quick way of accessing the internet or scribbling down notes, netbooks met a real need for those willing to be flexible.
As well as costs, there was another difficulty that Microsoft faced in this new sector. Where GNU/Linux was lean and ran well even on underpowered processors, Windows Vista – Microsoft's flagship at the time – needed plenty of RAM and a fast machine to be even halfway usable. This forced Microsoft to change its operating system strategy, as I reported in an article written in 2009:
To respond, it had to make two painful concessions. First, recognising that Windows Vista was simply too big and slow to run on netbooks, it had to extend support repeatedly for Windows XP, even though its stated plan was to phase it out.
Another reason for continuing to use Windows XP in this way was that even the minimal revenue it brought in on netbooks was something over and above what Microsoft would have received otherwise on a product that was being discontinued. That presumably allowed it to offer netbook manufacturers particularly attractive pricing as an incentive to drop GNU/Linux.
Eventually Windows 7 came out, and seems to have been written, at least in part, to address the problem of Vista's bloat so that low-end versions could run more easily on smaller systems like netbooks. But having overcome one limitation, Microsoft imposed others:
First, it wanted to limit the number of applications that could be run concurrently on netbooks using the entry-level Windows 7 Starter edition, but had to backtrack in the face of the uproar this provoked.
Next, it has laid down that netbooks running Windows cannot use hybrid storage – that is, solid state and a hard disc. Finally, it has redefined the netbook as a “low cost small notebook PC”.
As I pointed out then, these were incontrovertible signs that Microsoft really hated the netbook sector, because it threatened to undermine sales of top-of-the-line Windows versions by being "good enough" for many people. And so instead of trying to grow the netbook market, Microsoft did everything it could to throttle it quietly, especially systems running the dreaded GNU/Linux.
And it succeeded, as a recent article in the Guardian points out:
Actually, the number [of netbooks] sold in 2013 will be very much closer to zero than to 139m [an earlier prediction]. The Taiwanese tech site Digitimes points out that Asus, which kicked off the modern netbook category with its Eee PC in 2007, has announced that it won't make its Eee PC product after today, and that Acer doesn't plan to make any more; which means that "the netbook market will officially end after the two vendors finish digesting their remaining inventories."
Asustek and Acer were the only two companies still making netbooks, with everyone else who had made them (including Samsung, HP and Dell) having shifted to tablets. Asustek and Acer were principally aiming at southeast Asia and South America – but of course those are now targets for smartphones and cheap Android tablets.
As that mentions, the final blow for netbooks has been the arrival of tablets.