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Linux, Netbooks, and ARM

January 8th, 2009

There’s a storm brewing in a small hot beverage container on OSNews over Freescale’s announcement of their ARM based MX515 CPU for the exploding netbook market. ARM isn’t x86. In practical terms, it means that any netbooks built on Freescales hardware won’t be capable of running Microsoft Windows. The argument on the article’s forum essentially boils down to; “Do people need Windows on netbooks?” with the implied “If we people were forced to run Linux on their netbook, would they really care?”

Well, maybe.

The buying public has the annoying – some would say innovative – habit of not doing exactly what the manufacturer expect with a given product. Users are supposed to browse the ‘net, and perhaps do some light document editing/reading. In other words, a PDA with a browser and the ability to do ‘real’ computing work if you need to.

The second part is the bit that can give people trouble. The chief market for netbooks thus far does not appear to be the enterprise. For an enterprise, the perception so far, whether real, imagined, or simply spurious, is that netbooks are simply not powerful enough for your average corporate user. The potential savings in hardware costs by providing users with a netbook to go along with their desktop instead of a dockable business class laptop are minimal when compared to the cost of providing administration and software licenses for two pieces of hardware.

For this reason, netbooks appear to be very much a consumer product. Some people will use them as their only machine, but most people are probably looking to use this as a portable device to supplement their existing desktop experience.

It seems fair to say that for web browsing, most users won’t notice the difference between MS/IE and Linux/Firefox (except for the lack of spyware and viruses), and given the minimal hassles I’ve had with the Ubuntu 8.04 desktop I set up for a non-technical friend this early last year, I’m inclined to take the position that the question of Linux on the desktop is more closely connected to the users perception than anything technical.

This perception is apparently quite deeply rooted in when a given user was given control over their first computer. The average Windows power user, who has clocked up enough time to have owned a computer with a CRT is probably deeply concerned that the Linux desktop isn’t exactly like Windows – and is mystified that Linux programmers don’t care. Someone who has only used Windows at work in a controlled corporate environment is likely to accept what ever they get, as long as it works. The average child who has yet to hit teenage-hood, for whom the Internet has always existed, and is likely adept at manipulating the wildly varying interfaces on various cellphones and game consoles is probably not going to even notice.

It’s this last set that I think Freescale is targeting. Sure, many parents spoil their kids, but when it comes to buying a new netbook for each progeny, the majority of parents are going to buy the USD$199 netbook with the eight hour battery over the $399 netbook with the six hour battery as a matter of simple economics.

Possible Part Two coming eventually.

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