Linux Netbooks: Hiding in Plain Sight

While Apple certainly remains a force in the market with smartphones, tablets and MacBooks, the company seems more focused on the first two categories and less so on its latest laptop computers -- which, regardless of past arguments from Apple, are strikingly reminiscent of Linux netbooks.

You just think that's a Chromebook beckoning you with an open source OS, easier upgradeability and fast connections to the cloud. All those qualities could make it a Linux netbook in disguise -- or at least what the netbooks of a few years ago promised before they all started selling preloaded with Windows. The key? More manufacturers buying into the flexibility of the Linux kernel in the Chrome OS.

As a technology industry analyst, I was really beginning to think I got it wrong when it came to Linux netbooks, which I heralded as one of the last great hopes for Linux on the desktop years ago.

As it turns out, considering the growing popularity and credibility of Chromebooks, the Linux netbook may still be living -- at least in spirit -- among us today.

New Greenfield Market
Part of my bullishness on Linux netbooks a few years ago went beyond the market's and my own fondness for a smaller form factor, greater battery life and mobility, and more Web and cloud-based connectivity. I was more excited about the fact that these new devices ran Linux and open source software, making them much more flexible and upgradeable.

Later on, even as we were seeing netbooks tip toward Windows, I was confident there was significant market share and influence ahead for Linux in this form factor.

I also believed netbooks to represent a new, greenfield market for Linux among not only users and consumers, but also manufacturers. In reality, it was Android that truly proved toOEMs and wireless carriers that Linux could work.

As for Linux netbooks, despite a number of solid OS options that were free, they were rapidly replaced by Windows models with hard-disc drives. Even today, these Windows devices do not retain the same solid-state drive ruggedness and durability or software flexibility that made Linux netbooks interesting.

In my opinion, this is part of the demise of the netbook market. Rather than providing devices capable of running multiple operating systems and upgrades to them, netbooks became increasingly Windows-centric, which made them less of a new device and more of the same old thing for many consumers.

Nobody Loves Netbooks
Today there are a limited number of actual netbooks for sale. Most still come with Windows while there are some options running Linux, but one thing they all have in common is that none are in great demand. Even if I still work occasionally on the go with my Linux netbook, the netbook's time has come and gone.

Netbooks aren't the only form factor to have taken a beating. Some recent sales figures indicate possibly slower sales of Windows 8, while PC desktop and notebook sales are down. At the same time, the latest iteration of Chromebooks seem to be selling well with good reviews on usability and appeal.

Amid a lot of hype for tablets, perhaps because of the keyboard or some other parts of "older computers," the form factor lives on and evolves with roots in the traditional notebook and -- believe it or not -- the netbook as well. One of the most significant carry-overs from the netbook is Linux, with Chromebooks leveraging the Linux-based Chrome OS.

Follow the Profitability
We must also consider the shift toward mobile computing, smartphones and tablets, and the departure from not only the traditional desktop PC but also from the traditional notebook PC. Rather than existing at a total disadvantage, as Linux did historically on the desktop, given Microsoft's hold on the market, Linux is well-represented in the mobile market with Android.

I also see Canonical's Ubuntu work developing and designing software for netbooks reflected in the look and feel of its recently announced mobile Ubuntu, which has potential to disrupt the mobile OS space.

Thanks to advances in the Linux kernel, market success of Android and continuing flexibility and options through openness for manufacturers, Linux has become a standard for OEMs that proves open source software can be effective and profitable for them. Growing manufacturer support for Chromebooks illustrates the same thing, with Linux and open source playing a significant role in the software and devices, but doing so inconspicuously and without much mention.

So the next time you see a Chromebook, just keep in mind: It really may be a form of Linux netbook.

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