Thursday, June 20, 2024

Netbook Wars: Linux, Android, Windows 7

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Not all that along ago, I was hearing rumors that the release of Windows 7 will spell the death of Linux on tiny notebook type computers called netbooks. At the time the argument was that people expected Windows on their PCs and that familiarity would win out over anything that desktop Linux distributions can dispense in response.

Speaking for myself, I think people make these broad generalizations because they either have a vested interest in the Windows 7 product being successful or they’re totally unaware that there is a healthy operating system ecosystem that goes beyond anything provided by Microsoft or Apple.

Despite netbooks not requiring the Windows OS to browse the web, check email or even use the latest social media tools available, desktop Linux remains largely unknown for the most part. And to date, it seems like the netbook market could end up falling even further into Microsoft’s clutches should Windows 7 find itself bundled with the available netbooks.

Enter Google’s Android

As Linux has yet to truly capture the public at large, Google’s Android operating system is said to be the most logical approach to taking Microsoft’s Windows 7 head on. As a full time desktop Linux user myself, I want so very much to see some desktop distro such as Ubuntu take Windows 7 to task on the netbook front.

Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that many netbook OEMs lack the desire to even attempt such a thing. But all is not lost.

Android, originally thought of as an operating system for HTC mobile phones, which competes with the iPhone and Windows mobile, is thought to be a viable option for getting the Linux kernel out into the netbook market. But it will do so with a more “trend setting” sort of fashion thanks to Google’s branding and support.

How well has Android done so far in the netbook market? Sadly, one of the first Android netbooks to market, the Skytone Alpha 680 tablet/netbook, has been met with more criticism than praise.

The single biggest complaint is its inability to run two applications or more in the same screen view. One must minimize one application to access the next one.

Taking another look at Ubuntu

After considering Android, I find myself looking back over to desktop Linux to relieve some of the pain seen elsewhere.

Perhaps using Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is the solution to the “two programs at once” issue? Marketing challenges aside, it could have been a workable solution.

However, like with Android, UNR also has the inability to simply display two applications overlapping one another, based on my own testing with it. This is not to say that with UNR it’s impossible, rather one must realize that you have to right click over the correct area, then attempt to resize the app as to make both of the running applications viewable at once.

At this point I begin to wonder why everyone is in such a rush to make the most limited desktop possible? Do netbook manufacturers believe that netbook users are so dim that using default installations of GNOME or KDE is simply beyond their reach?

Yet at the same time, we see XP being offered without all of the dumbing down. Why is that?

Whether it be Android or the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, each of these options are horrid to use. Based on my own installation of UNR, I am still trying to figure out why preferences and administration are missing from my UNR menu.

And this is not even considering the missing icons for network manager, among a host of other things – for instance, the missing clock. Could be a bug with my own installation, but still, it’s a big disappointment.

Asking the casual user to limit their options to this degree borders on insulting them. This may be a shock to some of you, but such complicated ideas like pull down menus for Applications, Places, and System are something that most reasoning adults are able to wrap their feeble minds around.

The perceived “failure of Linux on netbooks” as it were, has nothing to do with desktop Linux. It’s a matter how desktop Linux and Android are presented to the end user. And let me be the first to say, no one in the OEM market has done anything too impressive here.

Now for the biggest question of all: Why are non-Windows releases trying to provide a completely unique experience while Windows appears to basically remain the same?

It’s a valid question that I’ve been considering for sometime now. Unfortunately I have been unable to come up with a definitive answer short of Microsoft not needing to re-invent the wheel to get people to use their product.

After all, everyone has heard of Windows. But most people have no idea what to expect from these “netbook Linux editions” designed for the smaller screen size.

Who wins in the end?

In short, if you look at why a user might select one option over another, in the case of Windows, it seems to me that familiarity is winning in a big way.

I see two beacons of shining light for those alternatives looking to take on Windows 7 upon its release and into the future: Access to an “app store” and the ability to overlay two applications.

Despite the belief that overlaying two applications on such a small screen is counter productive, it’s a choice that the end user needs to be presented with in an easier way. Windows alternatives for netbooks really need to have access to an application center or “app store” in order to make software installation as appealing as possible. Ubuntu, for instance, has been doing well with their Add/Remove functionality on the desktop front for sometime now.

To the end user, it’s a matter of having access to applications that are able to do what they want them to. And even taking into account the inherent headaches that including proprietary code can provide, the idea of developing applications for money remains a big motivator for driving forward with some very cool software.

Assuming Google can buckle down and give Android the same kind of air time in the mainstream media that Microsoft will give Windows 7, it could be an interesting competition. A competition with plenty of hills and valleys as each platform shows off its best.

As to whether Windows 7 will own the netbook market share in the future is not simply a matter of media buzz, however. It will also be a matter of how much value a stripped down, application-lite installation of an operating system is valued, familiar or otherwise.

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