The past couple of weeks saw a flurry or articles debating the future of Linux on netbooks. A report in the Taipei Times on May 9th was picked up by LinuxToday but largely ignored by the tech press and the blogosphere. Stephen Lim, the General Manager of Taiwan based Linpus Technologies, made the surprising prediction that Linux will regain 50% market share from Windows on netbooks by next year. Lim added:
More and more chip suppliers such as Texas Instruments Inc and Qualcomm Inc are jumping on the bandwagon to adopt Linux. We are also seeing more and more PCs bundled with Linux from Acer Inc, Asustek Computer Inc, Dell Inc and other computer brands.
Lim also spoke about the advantages of Linux over Windows, "
The advantages of using a Linux system include advanced power management, optimized boot and shutdown times, as well as more WiFi and 3G support such as software development kits from telecommunication providers
I'm sure some will dismiss Mr. Lim's projections as self-serving since Linpus is a Linux distributor heavily invested in the netbook market. It turns out Mr. Lim isn't alone in seeing Linux equal or even overtake Windows on netbooks. ABI Research sees it happening but they see it taking a bit longer than a year. They see Linux regaining dominance on netbooks by 2012. ABI cites the arrival of low-end ARM-based netbooks as part of the reason for a Linux resurgence. They also cite the arrival of Linux distributions designed for mobile devices, particularly Android and Moblin. Windows doesn't run on ARM processor based systems.
While ARM has been getting lots of notice in the tech press a Spanish company called iUnika announced a netbook with a MIPS processor (pictured). Linux already runs on MIPS processors. The support dates back to MIPS-powered SGI workstations running Linux back in the '90s. Windows, on the other hand, doesn't run on MIPS powered systems.
Linpus has also proven itself very capable at marketing their distribution to netbook vendors. It appears Linux on netbooks may be more popular in Asia than in the West and Linpus Linux Lite is the most popular distribution on netbooks in much of Asia. nikkels, an Asian LXer.com reader reported that shops in his country all offer a choice of Linux or Windows on netbooks, with Linpus Lite the most popular Linux offering. Linpus Lite is also offered preinstalled on the Acer Aspire One worldwide.
Those who assure us that Linux has no future on netbooks and that Windows 7 will dominate, such as Preston Galla of Computerworld, assume that Intel processors will continue to dominate the netbook market. The problem with making that assumption is that there are real advantages to ARM processors, specifically very low power consumption, which allows for much longer battery life than similar Intel Atom or Via C7-M processors. Galla quotes Matt Kohut of Lenovo who sees netbooks becoming larger and more powerful, more like standard notebooks. What Kohut and Galla forget is that the initial success of netbooks was driven by their low cost, small size, and light weight. The original Asus Eee PC 701, which is still on the market, had a miniscule 7" screen. Recently announced ARM based systems, such as the SkyTone Alpha-680, are banking on the idea that these is still a market for very small, very light, and really inexpensive systems. I happen to believe they are correct.
I don't know if the Linux resurgence will happen this year, next year, or the following year. I do know that I would like to have a system that weighs in at less than 2 lbs. (0.9 kg) and has more than eight hours of battery life per charge. I'm hardly unusual in that respect. So long as the Linux implementations are easy to use for the average user the resurgence of Linux on netbooks will come.
CORRECTION: I incorrectly claimed that the iUnika gyy is the first MIPS powered netbook. Rather, it is based on the first MIPS powered netbook, the SkyTone Alpha 400, announced in April, 2008.