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.