Netbooks Spark Linux Redesigns

The sparsely populated floor at Linuxworld was a disappointment, but netbooks made an impact at this year's show, a sign that these lightweight machines may bring the Linux OS to a larger audience.

Crowds flocked the booths of companies like Canonical and Good OS, which showed off special versions of Linux designed for netbooks, low-cost laptops designed to run basic applications for Web surfing and e-mail.

The Linux versions have been redesigned to work properly with netbooks, which are characterized by limited computing resources, lightness and small screen sizes.

Netbooks are neither mobile phones nor standard laptops, and there is ongoing development to improve the Linux experience for netbook users, said Stormy Peters, executive director of the Gnome Foundation. Netbooks will increasingly bring Linux to the average consumer, and a better user experience could boost adoption of the OS, Peters said.

Standard Linux distributions could work on netbooks but they are mostly designed for standard laptops, Peters said. For example, the Linux footprint could be reduced as the limited netbook resources -- including processing power and storage capabilities -- are not the same as in standard laptops, Peters said. Gnome hasn't come out with a new desktop interface for netbooks, but mobile Linux developers are working on it, she said.

A number of other organizations, including Canonical and Good OS, have readied distributions that make Linux friendlier for netbook users.

Canonical showed off netbooks with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a Linux distribution that includes a touchscreen interface to take advantage of the lightness and small screen sizes of netbooks.

Users can turn netbooks into tablet PCs with the OS, holding the laptop and accessing applications by just touching large icons on the screen.

Handily carrying a netbook with a few fingers, software engineer Adilson Oliveira showed off the interface, accessing applications like games and instant-messaging applications by pressing the large icons on the screen. The OS centralizes application icons in one interface to reduce reliance on the keyboard.

The touchscreen interface makes better use of the vertical space of smaller netbook screens, said Oliveira, who works at Canonical, the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu.

However, Remix is built on top of a standard Ubuntu distribution, so it doesn't reduce the Linux footprint for a netbook. Remix is already available to distributors to preload on netbooks.

Netbooks provide insufficient storage and processing capability to hold applications mostly found on standard laptops, said David Liu, founder and CEO of Good OS, which develops the gOS Linux distribution. The company showed its upcoming gOS 3 Gadgets Linux distribution at Linuxworld, which is designed to work on netbooks.

While there were no signs of touchscreen applications, Good OS is providing easier access to Web-based applications on gOS 3 Gadgets Linux.

The desktop interface of gOS 3 Gadgets includes a search bar to cull information from the Wikipedia encyclopedia on the Web, and an icon to access Google's Gmail. The desktop also features Google Gadgets, mini-applications for users to play games and check system resources like battery power and the strength of a wireless network signal.

The OS is built for netbooks and Google's applications make sense, Liu said. Google's Gadget applications use little power, and Web-hosted applications could be better for laptops with limited resources, Liu said.

GOS 3 Gadgets also prepackages Google applications like Picasa and Google Earth. It will be available free in September, and the company is in talks with PC makers to preload the OS on low-cost laptops.

IDC predicts that netbook shipments will reach 9 million by 2012. Demand for Asustek's Eee PC netbook exploded last year, when it sold 350,000 units in its first quarter since its October launch. However, Jerry Shen, CEO of Asustek, went on to say that Windows-based netbook demand would be higher than Linux-based netbooks.

Some users will buy Windows netbooks due to familiarity and the applications that work on them, Gnome Foundation's Peters said. However, Linux is easy to use for average consumers who don't worry about the OS and look for the computer to work properly.

Peters ordered a US$350 Eee PC online from Amazon.com. It arrived the next day and started working out of the box. It was inexpensive and easy to use, she said, and it didn't entail the tons of research needed in buying higher-priced standard laptops.

There may be confusion on what Linux distributions netbook users should choose, but the variety of options ultimately will benefit the buyer, she said.

"It's good to have different distributions as they target different types of users," Peters said.

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