Windows 7 and Linux - The Netbook Market

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In the previous article of this series, we analyzed what Windows 7 will be offering. In this article we will analyze the main computer market segments, one by one, from both the Linux and Windows 7 perspectives.

Netbook (nettop) market: This is the emerging market for computers, which started with Asus’s Eee PC and where -nearly- all of the computer manufacturers jumped into. The netbooks offer smaller form factors, lighter weights, and longer battery lives at the expense of performance.

Looking at the netbook market with Linux pre-installed, we see a point where price elasticity is high. People who buy netbooks with pre-installed Linux do not have to pay an additional price to have Windows installed, which is basically the Windows license fee. This is one of the strongholds for Linux in all markets - Windows will always have a price, high or low.

We can not leave aside the number of users who already have an XP license who also buy netbooks with Linux pre-installed in order to not to pay for the license fee and continue using their own software. As long as their usage complies with Microsoft’s End User License Agreement, there is nothing wrong with that.

Linux distributions that run on netbooks, namely modified Xandros and Linpus Linux Lite, have interfaces that look very simple and removes the barriers for the people who have no previous experience with computers or with Linux. Hardware vendors also have the opportunity to customize their systems with Linux, which they can not do with Windows. Like everything in the world, this has advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages of Linux are people have minimal barriers to interact with the computers (such as clicking “work” on Eee PC to be taken to Office programs), minimal maintenance (firewalls, malware removers etc), stability, reliability, less costs, ease of updating the system and installing software.

The disadvantages are there is no standard desktop (consider Xandros on Eee, Linpus on Aspire One, the standard KDE, Gnome) making people think that they will have to restart learning how to use computers with every brand, the interface is not what people are used to (even the shape of the mouse pointer), known programs (Excel instead of Spreadsheet) are missing, wide availability and the assistance they can get from everywhere, even within their family. People using Linux may also want to join to Active Directory domains of their company, which is a hard configuration for the majority of users.

In his interview with ArsTechnica, Steven Sinofsky implicitly states that he is happy with the performance of Windows 7 on a generic netbook. Personally I am doubtful, since if seven-year old Windows XP is only running basically on netbooks (not the new installation, but with the essential software such as anti-virus, firewall, malware removal, and Office), I do not expect a new release to run smoothly on a netbook. As I have watched Microsoft for about 15 years, I am pretty sure that they mean a basic installation on a netbook, such as a Vista starter, and not a full-fledged installation as I stated above. It seems to me that they will be blaming the other software vendors stating that their software requires too much in resources when their operating system can not do better after the initial installation.

In my opinion, Linux is ready for mainstream usage in netbooks. However, I would say that it would be better if the Linux programmers pay particular attention to find an easy way to let the user configure Active Directory membership and if the vendors would seek a single interface for the pre-installed Linux operating system on these machines.

Next up, we take a look at the laptop market.

Notebook (laptop) market: This is the market that has infinite hardware configurations which makes it very tough to enter as an operating system with no driver availability. Hardware vendors do not make their specifications available (such as wireless card and modem vendors), and the only way to use this hardware is reverse engineering it.

Despite all these, Linux has had much progress, and you can be more or less be sure that your computer will be able to run Linux. If you plan to purchase a notebook to install your favorite Linux distribution, do not prepare your shopping list unless you check the Laptop Linux webpage. If you are not a do-it-yourself person, and you want to receive your notebook with everything that works, Dell is offering Linux pre-installed on some of their notebooks.

The pros and cons I have described for the netbook market is all the same for the notebook market, except for customized Linux installations. Where you are advancing in terms of hardware by jumping to the notebook segment from the netbook segment, you will not see customized installations.

Your newly bought notebook is ready to run Linux and you can go for a full installation. You will be getting a more Windows-like interface with KDE or Gnome, and you will have your productivity suite, photo management and media applications which are more powerful than the ones on the netbooks, because they are simply running on a faster hardware.

If you are not a gamer, but are using your notebook for your office suites, internet and multimedia, if you are not a web programmer who needs very complicated web authoring tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver and/or Cold Fusion, or if you are not a digital artist who exploits Photoshop and/or AfterEffects then choosing Linux as your notebook operating system is the way to go (do not forget to check Laptop Linux before your purchase). It will be a very good idea to check CodeWeavers’ website for your specific programs though since you might be able to run them on Linux. I will cover games later.

The release of Windows 7 will not make a huge impact on Linux in the notebook market. What Microsoft is promising with the new release is merely some improvements, which I believe will be nothing more than easier wireless connectivity and battery management. Nothing new here that Linux users don’t already have. Linux, on the other hand, is taking small but sure steps with every feature offered. It already is performing better as an operating system and offers software products that are very good, and in many cases better, alternatives.

Continue on to the next page for a look at the desktop market.

Desktop market: The desktop market is seemingly more organized than the notebook market. The major hardware manufacturers such as Intel, Nvidia, AMD, and ATI have their drivers (although proprietary) available for Linux, and installating and configuring the desktop is not an issue 99% of the time. The only problem you may face with the installation is the newest hardware may not have drivers available yet.

What I said about the laptop market is valid also for the desktop market. If you do not use very specific programs to carry out your work, then basically you have less of an excuse for using Windows. Everything is set up with your Linux installation and the only thing that you need is to go through the very intuitive menu structure and spot the programs that you basically need to use for your daily routine. Some of the programs have migration options from Windows (such as Firefox importing all your data from Internet Explorer and Thunderbird importing all your e-mails from Outlook Express) which makes you ready to go in a lesser amount of time.

Games: When people ask if they can play their favorite games under Linux, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on whether you have Cedega/CrossOver installed and your game is supported. Both programs are basically software that map Windows calls (APIs) to Linux equivalents, thus enabling the games to think that they are running on Windows. They are not emulators but compatibility layers, let’s say.

Cedega, as a company, focuses on only playing games under Linux and they have an extensive library of games found on their Games Database. The software is subscription-based with 6-month and 12-month options are. Many of the newest games are compatible, and you can replay those titles that you already have also. Meanwhile, CrossOver has both Standard and Professional versions, with different prices, of course. CrossOver also has CrossOver for Games, but personally I find Cedega to be more games oriented and CrossOver more general Windows software oriented.

As you will see, the power of Windows is diminishing day by day, even in some places which Microsoft believes they are strong. The “Games for Windows” label you see on the boxes are just there to make you think Windows is the only platform on which you can play games. The truth, as we see, is different.

Continue on to the next page to read recommendations for Linux developers.

I will not be concluding this article without some recommendations to Linux developers. Here are just a few:

1. User interface: Everything is going nicely for the user interface, but still improvement is needed. OpenOffice is a special software bundle that is a good example for this. The office suite has just gone with its 3.0 release, and still the interface looks worse than Microsoft Office 1997. That’s 11 years old, and it’s one of the points where I give credit to Microsoft: they choose beautiful and matching colors, and they make beautiful interfaces (the ribbon interface introduced with Office 2007 is wonderful). Do not tell me how much more resources Windows needs for the interface and the like, you have no right. Consider the KDE 4 interface, Enlightenment. Linux graphical artists and developers are the best, and they have proven that they can do better. But please, do not follow Microsoft. Go create. Linux is not Windows.

2. Network switching: Make it easier to switch between wired/wireless networks. If I boot up my laptop at home and choose my “Home” connection, it should make all the configurations automatically - choose my home printer as the default printer, for example. Pardus has taken very good steps on network configuration - I recommend other developers to take a look.

3. Active Directory: This is where we, the end users, need support from the developers. Although the Active Directory configuration could be made through the system files, I am sure many business users are finding it hard to configure their active directory settings. There could be some way to do it together with Samba, such as recognizing the servers in the network and allowing the user to configure the very basics with a wizard.

4. Documentation: As I told you, I believe Linux developers are the best in the world. However, the end users, -us-, may not be as smart as they are. Take me, I do not have the system developer’s knowledge - I am a simple “computer operator”. And I need help. I need to find good documentation when going through the Help menu. I do not want to go to the Internet to learn what should be in the help file. Please take documentation seriously. Please help your users.

I believe the above points are concerns of many users that make Windows attractive in some cases. And, they are not rocket science. There is a strong community, and the community can take care of these.

Now we get back to our original question: Does Microsoft have reasons to fear Linux? Plenty. In the short term? No fear. In the mid term? Maybe. In the long term? The penguin is coming.