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The Fight for the Netbook Operating System

netbookSmartphones are becoming more like PCs in many ways, especially if you think of netbooks or mobile Internet devices as cheap computers. The underlying hardware is becoming more similar, connectivity is crucial, and the tasks people use them for are converging. But a key difference between a computer and a phone  remains: the operating system.

Software vendors are trying to nip and tuck their code to gain a foothold onto these intermediate devices. Last week reports surfaced that Microsoft (s MSFT) may attempt to port its Windows OS to the ARM-based chips found in smartphones, and the software will eventually head to netbooks. In addition, manufacturers are trying to adapt Google’s (s GOOG) Android software to work on netbooks. While there are two or three primary OSes on computers and a multitude on smartphones, the netbook universe is seen as still-virgin territory, with most on the market being Windows or Linux machines.

To get an idea of what this fight for control of the netbook OS means  from a consumer perspective, look at how long it takes you to find and forward an email on an unfamiliar computer. It doesn’t take long, because most computers are similar, thanks to the ubiquity of one or two OSes. Now think about how long it takes to complete the same task on an unfamiliar phone. Probably a lot longer because the interface can vary so widely across different devices and OSes.

Software vendors, chipmakers and device makers are trying to push a multitude of OSes on netbooks, partially because they are such a fast-growing device category right now, and everyone wants to gain a foothold. Plus, as Microsoft’s first-quarter earnings showed, netbook success is cutting into sales of traditional computers that run full-fledged versions of various operating systems. Microsoft needs to get a version of Windows onto the devices that make it more money.

That’s one of the reasons Microsoft may port Windows to ARM (s ARMH), but another is that as everything becomes connected to the web, consumers don’t want to have to learn new ways to access content on a multitude of devices. That’s why Google, Nokia (s NOK) and even Intel (s INTC) are pushing for software than can run the gamut between 4-inch touchscreens and 40-inch televisions.

It won’t be easy, in part because an operating system has to take into account different ways of inputting information on various devices — from touchscreens to keyboards — and even differing screen resolutions. But the payoff is that consumers will find it easier to use mobile devices, and developers can port their apps across a wide range of gadgets more easily.

19 Responses to “The Fight for the Netbook Operating System”

  1. it is a bit dissapointing to see all the manufactures offering very stripped down linux distro on minimum configuration hardware and than offering much more capable hardware with windows as the premium product. this just send out the impression that linux is an inferior OS. i wish they would offer a full blown linux dstro as dual boot along side windows on the premuim offerings and let the consumer decide which OS they prefer.

    personally i find the only way to get the system i want is to buy the windows version and than install my own ‘third party’ linux.

    • It really sucks that they could just install ubuntu netbook remix or jolicloud, or moblin or a cluster of other netbook OS options. These are both operating systems specifically customized from ubuntu to run more efficiently on netbooks. In May when this article was written, Ubuntu Netbook Remix was out and operating pretty well on most netbooks on the market. Most publishers/magazines don’t do any Linux distro justice. I guess they just didn’t do any research, or they are bought and paid for by large money-making corporations (take your pick)… Take this as an example:

      For months now, I have had the ability to – using ubuntu netbook remix on my asus 1008HA with Samba file sharing installed – automatically sync my music and movie folders from the ubuntu server in my house to my netbook over only WiFi without doing anything at all after setting it up. It does it as soon as I walk into my house at the end of the day as long as my netbook is on. Granted, a similar think can be done under Windows XP, but not anywhere near as reliably as ubuntu does it for me..

  2. HereAndNow

    Although I have not yet seen a PC vendor announce such a device, I can imagine a netbook that literally uses all the current smartphone electronics, but has a larger screen and keyboard. Such a device would support mobile phone calls, location-based apps, etc.

    Thus, it is not just a matter of porting Windows 7 to ARM for these devices, but also to add support for real-time applications like mobile phone calls, etc. For now, this implies such devices would have to run a smartphone OS like Android, Symbian, WinMo, etc.

  3. Microsoft is in real danger of handing this market to Android. As the Sony CS illustrates, Vista ain’t what you wanna be running on one of these little guys. If MS is going to have a snowball’s chance they better pray that Win7 runs a good bit better or smaller hardware than Vista.

  4. Android has a fair chance to win the Netbook OS market – of course it increases the opportunity for Linux given that Android is in itself not an OS but a platform built on Linux OS.

    Android probably will need fine tuning and optimization to run well on Netbooks that may fundamentally different requirements compared to a Smart Phone for which Android was originally designed.

  5. If only Apple would make a Netbook running OSX. Then there would be no need to discuss the best OS for Netbooks! In fact this device may do more to push people to OSX than the iPhone and iPod have done.

  6. krishnabaidya

    apple has a distinctive edge (proven through its iPhone success) but will have to see how open it is in licensing to other manufacturers … will there be a shift of business model? I doubt. especially after its chip strategy been out in the market. among others i would bet my money on andriod :)

  7. Though left unsaid in the article, the obvious big unknown lurking is Mac/iPhone OS X, and whatever Apple is cooking up for this in-between-the-smartphone-and-computer space.