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Thursday, 05 March 2009 12:04

UnderNetbook: A tale of two markets

Is there really a battle between Windows and Linux to dominate the netbook market, or is it a phoney war that will end in peaceful coexistence?

I had an interesting conversation with Symantec Security Response director David Cole yesterday - one that helped crystallise my own thoughts about netbooks.

We tend to talk about netbooks as if they are largely interchangeable. But there's really two separate things going on under a single banner.

One is the 'traditional' netbook, if that term can be applied to such a recent phenomenon.

The key characteristics are small, light and cheap. All important considerations for something that you might carry everywhere (because smartphones are too expensive and have screens that are too small), or that knocks around at home so you can (for instance) find information on the web while watching TV.

The other is the high-end netbook, which is really just a lightweight notebook. While the lightest and thinnest full-function notebooks have tended to be on the expensive side (the MacBook Air comes to mind), netbooks trim the weight and cost by feature reduction.

So you get an Atom processor rather than a Core 2 Duo, there's no DVD drive (not that all lightweight notebooks include optical storage), and so on.

What operating system does that imply? Please read on.

Advantages over cheaper netbooks include a (close to) full-size keyboard and a larger screen.

Since buyers in this part of the market generally want to use their familiar applications, the overwhelming majority will go for a netbook running Windows rather than Linux.

For now, that means XP, though I have seen Microsoft's consumer alliance manager Billy Tucker running Windows 7 beta "on a netbook you can buy in Big W."

Yes, existing Linux users will be happy to run that operating system on their notebook replacement. (It only seems like yesterday that high-spec notebooks were being positioned as desktop replacements.)

But the majority will want Windows - as shown by reports of relatively high return rate for Linux netbooks.

(Linux fans: start your flamethrowers!)

It's a very different story at the other end of the market. See page 3.

If all you really want is a mobile browser that's a bit more ergonomic than a smartphone, you don't really care about the operating system.

Go into a local mobile phone store and listen: how many people specifically ask for a Symbian phone? Or a Windows Mobile phone? Come to that, they don't even ask for an OS X phone.

So if 'real' netbooks were being sold in the same way as most mobile phones - heavily subsidised or even free with a data access contract - would people bother which OS they ran?

Or would they care more about quick startup times and low cost?

Presumably the carriers would care about cost, because the the less they have to pay, the smaller the subsidy needed to get the upfront price down to whatever point is deemed appropriate.

Australia's already seen Vodafone offering a Dell netbook with internal 3.5G modem for $0 upfront, and apparently subsidised netbook deals are to be found in the US and Europe.

(Maybe I should have paid more attention to David M Williams' December 2008 commentary "Dumbass consumers squander netbook experience by rejecting Linux", although I'm not completely convinced that what I described as a high-end netbook is just a small notebook.)

So what's all this got to do with Symantec? Find out on page 4.

Linux netbook buyers might not need antivirus software, Cole concedes (although Symantec already has a Linux AV), but there are other aspects of security.

Features such as Identity Safe and SafeWeb from the new version of Norton 360 are applicable regardless of the operating system, and the company already has internal prototypes for Linux.

"What's the future [of attacks]? Deception. If you can't hack the products, hack the person," said Cole.

Even a relatively smart person can make bad decisions when they're not concentrating - and netbooks are likely to be used in such situations.

So while Linux may be relatively resistant to traditional software threats, there can still be a role for a different kind security software. Wouldn't it useful to be warned that the goods you're about to buy online are known to be counterfeit?

Sometimes the price is obviously too good to be true, but if the merchant is trying to pass off a fake as the real thing.

That's the potential market Symantec is looking to address, along with utility functions such as synchronising web username and password lists between devices.

Anyway, I've always been predisposed towards Linux as the operating system for netbooks as they were originally conceived, and I'm increasingly convinced that's the way to go.

But even if you wouldn't expect an upmarket netbook to run the latest and most demanding games, I can see why people might want to run at least some of the same software as they do on their (typically Windows) desktops or full-sized notebooks.

So I see room for both Windows and Linux to be successful in the netbook market.

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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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