Sunday, February 17, 2013

Not so fast: The notebook market still has room for disruption

Acer C7 Chromebook
Acer C7 Chromebook
(Photo credit: Ready Set Monday!!!)
by Pete Mazzaccaro

Since 2013 began, all the buzz in the Linux community has had to do with mobile. FirefoxOS is going to market on Chinese handsets soon. Ubuntu announced a phone version and developer images for Galaxy Nexus phones are due in a matter of days. Android, which many of us proudly count in the Linux fold, has continued to gobble every open corner of the mobile mar
ket as even tablets from Asus and Samsung (including the Nexus 7 and 10) gain popularity

But with all this mobile buzz, I continue to feel like there’s a real important segment of the market that those focusing on mobile continue to miss -- the light weight and productivity oriented notebook PC.

Wait, I thought this was the post PC era?

True. Mobile computing is exploding. With really good tablets at less than $400 that can surf the web, play great games and even offer remarkable productivity options, mobile’s eventual place as the mainstream, everyday way to compute is sure. Firefox’s parent company Mozila and Ubuntu’s Canonical would be foolish not to develop for these platforms now, regardless of how established Apple and Android already are. The future of both platforms depends on it.

Yet, there is still a place for the tried and true keyboard and mouse/trackpad input system paired with a more powerful and multi-task-friendly OS. And, though Android is headed in this direction quickly, it’s not there yet. Windows 8 with it’s modern UI and generally expensive ultrabook orientation has given alternatives an opportunity. But only one company is taking advantage of it.

Enter Chrome OS, a paired down Linux operating system with a shell that is the Chrome  browser from Google.  Initially dismissed as an overpriced and under-powered hobby project, ChromeOS-powered Chromebooks hit best-seller status on Amazon and is has quickly taken a nice slice of units shipped by Acer.

While tablets from Android and Apple haven’t been able to adequately fill the productivity requirements of every user, they’ve demonstrated that it is perfectly reasonable to expect to get stuff done without the ubiquitous Windows and the even more omnipresent Office. People are emailing, writing documents and editing presentations on their phones.

Like these mobile platforms, the pitch for Chromebooks is for a low-cost machine that is portable and designed to supplement a user’s main PC. The bonus with ChromeOS is that it’s keyboard oriented and is much more useful for real productivity. And, on top of that, the notebooks are super thin and attractive -- an important selling point PC makers this side of Apple seem to have overlooked for a long time.

So what does this have to do with Linux?

That Chromebooks have been successful tells me that the notebook market is not yet ready to roll over and die to make way for tablet domination. There are still many who would prefer the productivity afforded by a windows manager and a keyboard.

At the right price and in the right form factor, small notebooks with Linux could find a similar niche market. Ubuntu in particular is especially well positioned to succeed in this space.* I’m sure they’ve tried. But so far, they have not succeeded in talking any PC makers into taking them seriously enough to be anything beside a geek novelty -- like the absurdly priced Dell “Sputnik”  or a budget, third-world Windows stand in.

While Ubuntu may not be able to make the same claims of instant on and ease of use as the Chromebook, it can offer users much more flexibility and power. With Dropbox, Chrome, Firefox and even Opera (not to mention Ubuntu One which is getting better all the time), users will have mainstream browsing and web storage options that are compatible with everything else they own. No one needs to fear something new and different any longer.

In addition, Ubuntu offers the best Linux has to offer: free and powerful software --from LibreOffice and GIMP to Inkscape and Openshot. The upside for businesses and institutions are great. Like Chromebooks, Ubuntu notebooks would not only save schools and businesses a lot of money, but offer software options that are superior to the best ChromeOS has to offer. A would-be graphic designer, web developer and student could be incredibly productive at a tremendous savings.

Add to that the options Steam’s move to Ubuntu offers and the market suddenly becomes much larger than it has ever been.

So what’s the holdup?

Though PC makers are keen to experiment with Chrome OS, Linux has not gotten the same respect. It’s clearly still seen as too risky or improbable an option for PC makers.  I’m sure pressure from Microsoft is a factor, but I think most of the blame is just a general timidness on the part of PC makers. None of them seem to have the requisite imagination to take a good looking Ubuntu laptop to market effectively.

So while I’m excited by the prospect of an Ubuntu phone, I’d much prefer to see them work as hard as they can to convince Asus or Lenovo to make a 12” Ubuntu laptop available to the mass market. It doesn't have to be super-powered and it sure doesn't need to have a touch screen. Just be lightweight, have a better-than-6-hour battery life and a good build quality, and I think a market could be found, even in the U.S.

There is a chance for an unexpected player to make Ubuntu or Linux notebooks a reality. If, for example, Amazon saw a benefit to the Chromebook model, it could partner with Canonical to bring something pretty compelling to market. Though in all likelihood, it would prefer to develop its own system, one in which it calls all of the development shots.

I hate to be a pessimist, but I think past history demonstrates little reason to be hopeful for a real-deal Linux laptop hitting the shelves of the local Best Buy. I think Android is fast developing into an all-consuming and flexible OS that will soon gobble up even this market. Asus’ Transformer line is almost there. A year to two years from now, I think more people will be choosing between iOS and Android for their main laptop needs than MacOS or Windows.

The time for Ubuntu or any other Linux system is now. The window is open, but it will soon be closed.

-- Pete Mazzaccaro

* FOOTNOTE: I’m not trying to endorse Ubuntu as any better than any other Linux Distro, but I do believe that it is the most complete and ready-for-market Linux OS by a considerable amount. It not only has a well-established parent company, but has excellent built-in services and the is the first distro commercial developers like Valve and Spotify turn to in exploring Linux.
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  1. Great read and I agree with many of your points. It would be exciting to see a second Linux OS take the small laptop experience by storm.

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