The Netbook Revolution: A Whole New Niche in Computing

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The obvious alternative is Linux. And while Microsoft partner Novell says it has no plans to port its SLED desktop Linux distribution to the ARM platform, other distributions are more than willing to fill the gap. Xandros, which provides the OS for Linux models of Asus's Eee PCs, has already ported its product to ARM, and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which has gained a loyal following among users of current-generation netbooks, is reportedly in the process of doing the same.

Despite Apple's protestations about crippled netbooks, rumors continue to fly around the Internet about Apple developing its own netbook or tablet based on the iPhone OS used in the iPod Touch device.

The dark horse in this race, however, is Google, with its Java and Linux-based Android platform. So far, Android has enjoyed much hype but relatively little deployment, appearing in only a couple of smartphone models from T-Mobile. But analysts and some netbook vendors believe Android could be a good pairing for the next generation of netbooks, combining a streamlined UI with a low footprint that could help to keep costs down. Asus and HP are both reportedly testing netbook designs based on the platform, while the first Android-based netbook is expected to arrive this summer, priced at around $250.

Linux is no stranger to the world of consumer electronics, but releasing a general computing device based on the platform is an obvious gamble. Linux has long struggled to gain a foothold on the desktop, and there's little evidence to suggest that it will become a serious competitor to Windows in the near future. Many vendors will doubtless prefer to stick to Atom-based devices, latching onto Microsoft's netbook-friendly version of Windows 7 when it becomes available.

But the emergence of ARM-based netbooks running Linux is indicative of a subtle shift in messaging on the part of netbook vendors. Expect to see increased emphasis on netbooks as secondary machines or "companion devices," designed to be paired with a more traditional, full-featured notebook or PC, rather than standing on their own. In this way, vendors hope to limit netbooks' encroachment on notebook territory, instead selling them as a kind of peripheral for mobile information access. A Linux-based UI may not cut it for day-to-day business computing, but for limited Web access, file viewing, and communications it should be more than adequate for most users.

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