I realize this post will earn me some hate mail, but I also take comfort that only two percent of you actually care about Linux at all. I love Linux (especially Ubuntu), and more importantly I love Linux users. But the future of Linux on the desktop is a decidedly murky one. Let me set the stage. In late 2007 it looked like Linux was headed for a resurgence, thanks almost exclusively to netbooks, those low-cost mini-notebooks that are all the rage these days. ASUS started it by putting Linux on the original Eee PC, and everyone else who jumped into the pool followed suit. After all, what better way to cut costs on a price-focused computer than to ditch Windows? In 2008, Linux would finally arrive. But last year a funny thing happened: All those guys who started off crowing the virtues of Linux began backpedaling furiously. Vendors started offering Windows XP as an option or—in some cases—dropping Linux altogether in favor of XP. U.K. netbook maker Apricot dropped Linux’ SuSE OS, saying in an interview it wanted “to ensure customers have a smooth installation of their operating system” and that Linux was “too complicated with initial testers.” And MSI said that Linux specifically was responsible for its Wind netbook return rates, which were four times higher than those for its Windows-loaded machines. And finally, in what must be a deadening blow, even the ultra-crunchy One Laptop Per Child put Windows XP on its device as an option. The jury’s still out on which version children prefer, but considering the homegrown OLPC OS was specifically designed for use by kids, the fact that there’s any wavering at all is cause for alarm. What’s the takeaway here? Even in 2009, eighteen years after Linus Torvalds began working on the Linux kernel, it’s still too geek-focused and unfriendly for mainstream use. The complaints are exactly what you’d expect: It’s too confusing. I don’t know where to find this or that. It’s not compatible with my Windows apps. It doesn’t have any good games. My printer doesn’t work with it. In a sense, netbooks were exactly the wrong market for Linux to attack. Although Linux does carry 24 percent of the worldwide netbook market (according to IDC analyst Richard Shim), generally it’s more-sophisticated users who adapt a different OS more readily than the noobs, as they’re more apt to put in the time it takes to learn the system. Beginners just want to use at home what they use at the office so they can get to Pogo.com faster. In some ways, Linux is getting as bad a rep as Windows Vista, only Linux doesn’t have a $300 million marketing campaign to overcome the complaints. Instead, Linux claimed a milestone market share of a whopping 2.1 percent according to the Web user stats at W3Counter in October 2008, which put it in striking distance of that phenomenally popular and modern OS: Windows 2000. Some analysts believe that number could rise to as high as 10 percent by 2011, if the netbook phenomenon continues, and if netbook manufacturers continue to try and offer Linux operating systems. But even they admit that’s not a certainty. The best chance Linux has to succeed? Hide it. HP’s new Mini 1000, for example, offers a refreshing user interface called the Mobile Internet Experience. It’s basically a home screen that offers quick access to your e-mail inbox, Web favorites, photos, and music. And HP doesn’t really want buyers of this machine to know that it runs Ubuntu. It wants to put the Web front and center, a tactic that Acer, ASUS, and Dell have all attempted. Will it work? Maybe, but assuming Windows 7 is as lightweight and resource-friendly as Microsoft claims—and that Redmond continues to keep the cost for OEMs too good to pass up—there’s nothing to stop HP or any other vendor from simply slapping a more user-friendly UI on top of Windows. In other words, the Penguin might want to stick to smart phones like the T-Mobile G1. Christopher Null is a veteran technology journalist. He writes about tech daily at tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null.
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