Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Netbooks Become Ubiquitous and Linux Becomes Mainstream

Last Tuesday I took my ferret Chin Soon to her vet. While I was waiting I pulled my Sylvania g Netbook Meso out of its case to get some writing done. When the vet came in she commented on my "cute little netbook" and asked me if it was an Acer. Hers, it turns out, is an Acer and mine looks quite similar.

I read the reviews last year where people claimed that netbooks looked more like portable DVD players than computers. Well... nobody has mistaken mine for a DVD player. Lots of people recognize it as a netbook. I keep running into more and more people, both in the real world and online who have taken the plunge and bought themselves a little netbook. Many, like my ferrets' vet, are intelligent, professional people but are by no means technology professionals or even particularly technically inclined.

16 million netbooks have sold so far with growth estimated at 60% per year. I expect it could be higher that that. Netbooks are the least expensive new computers on the market in what is now a seriously troubled worldwide economy. Cool new technologies tend to snowball when they catch on. I've found I can do everything with my netbook that I could do with a conventional PC. Others will discover the same. Netbooks probably won't be as ubiquitous as cell phones but they will turn up in more and more places with more and more ordinary, non technical users.

Yes, the vet's Acer runs Windows. While the vast majority of new netbooks will be sold with either Windows XP or Windows 7, a substantial minority will continue to be preloaded with Linux. Millions of people have been introduced to Linux through netbooks and are satisfied with it. Educated consumers who learn that Linux, which requires fewer system resources, will run faster and comes with a wide variety of software preinstalled will choose Linux.

Despite the posts by various so-called tech journalists who always cheerlead for Microsoft claiming that Windows has "kicked Linux to the curb" or "crushed" Linux on netbooks, Microsoft's own estimate places Linux at 30% of current market share. Asustek's Samson Hu, quoted in the same Bloomberg article, places Linux on 30-40% of all EeePCs currently sold and expects Linux to maintain a 30% market share. Acer spokesman Henry Wang expects 20% of his Aspire One models to ship with Linux this year.

There were one million netbooks sold in 2007, all running Linux. There were 15 million sold last year. Assuming that Microsoft has no reason to deflate its own sales figures or inflate Linux numbers then the 30% figure becomes a good, conservative estimate of Linux netbook market share in 2008. That would make 4.2 million more Linux machines sold. Estimates for 2010 are as high as 29 million units. I've seen similar estimates for 2009. Let's assume the total market share for Linux across the industry will fall somewhere between the two leaders, around 25%. That would mean 14.5 million more new preloaded Linux boxes over the next two years, putting the total number since the summer of 2007 at 19.7 million.

I'm sure the Windows cheerleading section will be happy to point out that three times that number will run a Microsoft operating system and this will be touted as another great victory for Windows. Of course, these are the same folks who just a year ago were claiming Linux was insignificant in the consumer market with a less than one percent share of preloaded systems. Tell me again how going from less than 1% to 30% in the fastest growing segment of the consumer PC market is a crushing defeat for Linux and a great victory for Microsoft. Sorry, but I don't see it.

Consumers now are aware they have a choice and Linux has gone mainstream. Oh, and speaking of things snowballing, how many of those 19.7 million Linux netbook users will also choose Linux for a desktop or conventional notebook? How many will show Linux to their friends, family, or neighbors? How many of those friends, family, or neighbors may then make the same Linux choice? The results for an OS that's been "crushed" or "kicked to the curb" might be quite impressive indeed.