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Analyst: Original Eee PC Just for Linux Geeks

I wanted to talk to NPD's Stephen Baker so I could get his take on whether he agreed with me that Best Buy's decision to shun the Linux version of the Eee PC was a momentum-changer for the platform in general. And he happily obliged. But the most interesting tidbit had to do with the Eee PC itself. Or should I say the "Eh" PC? Any "mainstream" Eee PC users care to comment?

Do you consider the Eee PC’s runaway sales (estimated by the company to be 1 million and counting) to be a milestone for the Linux platform?
Stephen Baker: Eee PC has not been a runaway success, certainly not in the U.S. One million worldwide is less than 1 percent volume share—not that the product doesn't have its benefits, but 1 percent won't change much. Our sales numbers put their U.S. sales volume (not shipments) at under 100,000 since last October. And the consumers who are buying it are not mainstream PC buyers but the earliest of early adopters. These are Linux' core customers, so the Eee PC has been preaching to the converted. Big deal. If you can't sell a Linux PC to those people who can you sell it to?

One of our readers pointed out that four of the top ten notebooks on Amazon's Most Wished For list run Linux, if you count the N810 as a notebook. Do you see that as significant?

SB: Amazon's PC sales are very, very, very small compared to the big retailers and OEM direct Web sites. Think of them as a good view into the early adopter and high value demographics—rich, coastal, etc.—customers. But in PCs, they reflect a very narrow range of consumers.

What do you make of Best Buy picking up the XP version of the Eee PC? Do you consider that a blow for Linux at all?

SB: Best Buy picks what it can sell, what its customers are comfortable with, and what its people are comfortable selling. That should tell you all you need to know about the value proposition for Linux at mass, volume retail.

Is it your opinion that Microsoft was willing to take a sizable financial hit to get its OS on the Eee PC? And do you think this effort will pay off?

SB: Not sizable, again, given the volumes. But it was likely done for strategic reasons and certainly both to keep Linux down but also, for them, to make sure they grab a spot in any new opportunity.

Is Linux a better, smarter platform for the new Netbook category? Is Vista too bloated for this platform? What about XP?

SB: I think Linux is cheaper off the bat and that is why everyone went there. It fits well with the low storage requirements, and the low price doesn't leave much room for margin dollars. And Microsoft isn't always the early mover. Once they saw there was an opportunity, or they were informed of it, they moved. I think we will see about Microsoft's opportunity here but clearly holding onto XP shows the concerns around Vista.

There are a lot of Linux flavors at the moment. Do you see a front-runner in this group and do you feel like one has to emerge in order for Linux to take off?

SB: One of the basic Linux problems is the number of distros. Consumers want consistency and Microsoft offers that. I have always been of the mind that one of the hardest things to get mainstream consumers to do is to learn multiple ways of doing the same task. And that was always an inhibitor for Apple. And remains an inhibitor for Firefox. But in Linux that is much worse of a problem, at least for a product that needs to interact with its users as an OS.

Have you seen any signs that Linux has a shot at gaining momentum in the near future?

SB: I am not bullish on Linux as a front end for consumers. Can it be a back end? Sure, and maybe in devices like MIDs especially. That is their true calling. Let someone good design the front end and try to get it universally adopted. One of your commenters said it very well: In a few years no one will care about the OS and truthfully no one does now. It is the GUI that is the most important thing and that is what customers should interface with.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.