So, I've been involved in a long discussion here and on IT Wire with just the most charming and polite adversary one could wish for, Mr. Telic. This has actually caused me to go out and do some boring research on stuff which I had a feel for but hadn't really put any hard data to, and which is fairly depressing. (There's a summary at the bottom for impatient types: search for 'tl;dr' - that's 'too long; didn't read', for anyone else who was baffled by that cryptic little snippet as long as I was).
So, netbooks. Mr. Telic holds out the netbook market as the counter to my theory that Linux is doing pretty crappily in the traditional operating system 'market'. He cites numbers mainly drawn from 2008 and 2009, when Acer and Asus executives were on record as saying they were shipping 20% and "30 percent to 40 percent" of systems, respectively, with Linux installed, and one analyst said that 32% of netbooks shipped in 2009 ran Linux, and predicted that the majority would run Linux by 2012.
On the face of it, hey, that's a pretty strong argument. On my Canonical-hatin' sidetrack I did note that neither Acer nor Asus shipped Ubuntu on their netbooks - Asus uses/used Xandros and Acer uses/used Linpus, a Fedora derivative - which makes Mr. Telic's point rather weaker in support of the theory that Ubuntu's doing all the work of promoting Linux for ordinary people. (Only Dell of the major-tier manufacturers has shipped netbooks with Ubuntu pre-installed; the other major tier vendor we've discussed, HP, ships/shipped SUSE). But really, what I'm interested in with this post is the question of how Linux is doing.
So, here's the thing. Are we really on the smooth track from 32% (claimed, at least - I suspect that figure was actually a little optimistic) in 2009 to a majority in 2012? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I don't think we are, no.
The obvious question to ask was 'what's the figure for 2010?' Interestingly, I can't find one. Not from any analyst. Especially not from ABI, the firm that was very loud about its survey which gave the 32% figure for 2009 and the 'majority' extrapolation for 2012. This year they have released a new study which seems to mush things up a bit, and consider netbooks, smartbooks, tablets and basically anything else in between a laptop and a phone as one big market segment - they talk about 'Linux-based mobile devices'. The press release for the study (you can't read the study for free, of course) is noticeably lighter on big headline numbers than the little publicity tour they sent one of the authors of the 2009 Linux-on-netbooks study. The only number the press release cites is right up there in the first paragraph - "ABI Research anticipates that Linux-enabled mobile devices, led by the success of Google’s Android and upcoming Chrome OSs, will comprise 62% of the operating systems shipping in all (non-smartphone) mobile devices by 2015." (Again, my pesky Canonical-bashin' muscles note that 'led by Google's Android and upcoming Chrome OSs'...and while I'm at it, let me bash analysts by cynically noting that their 2009 press tour didn't really mention Android much at all. Boy, those analysts sure are great at predictions).
I Googled around and checked a few other analyst firms, but no-one seems to be giving any numbers on operating system share for netbooks for 2010. (Best I can find is a cheery prediction from December 2009, fairly typical of the genre around then, in which "mobile computing expert and Web entrepreneur Sascha Pallenberg" reckons that 50-70% of netbooks in 2010 will be running Android. Hmm.)
So, in the absence of that kind of data, and related to some back-and-forth nitpicking with Mr. Telic, I went out looking for netbooks with Linux preloaded instead. What I found was, well, a wasteland.
Let's go with the big dogs first. Asus! The company that introduced the netbook (and whose first models only came with Linux). The company that was shipping 40% Linux models in 2008, and expected it to stay at 30% after that. Now, Asus has about sixty bajillion very slightly different models listed on its website, and life's frankly too short to go through all of those. Let's look at what you can actually buy. So, to Best Buy!
As of writing this, Best Buy offers 16 Asus netbooks through its website. How many come with Linux pre-installed? That would be none. Yup, it's Windows all the way - a couple with XP Home, the rest with 7 Starter.
Well, that ain't so good. Still, Best Buy's not the only retailer, right? Let's go with somewhere a little more geek-friendly. How 'bout NewEgg? Surely they'll have at least a token system or two for the geeks, right? Well, uh, nope. NewEgg lists 21 Asus netbooks. 21 of 'em come with Windows.
Well, hey, that's just the U.S., y'know, the biggest computer market in the world. No biggy. Let's check some other countries. Canada? Well, uh, nope. Future Shop doesn't sell Eee's, oddly enough. Best Buy Canada sells one, with Windows. Netlink, where I buy my stuff, sells (or at least lists, half of them probably aren't really available any more) 42 models - every bloody one with Windows. The UK? Nope. Comet has five, all with Windows.
Well, okay, then. Asus obviously fell a bit out of love with Linux. Still, they're yesterday's news. Even though they introduced the sector, Acer rules it; they ship the most netbooks of any manufacturer. Best Buy doesn't list any Aspire Ones on its US website (odd), so I went with CDW, who list 17...all with Windows. NewEgg, 8, Windows. Best Buy Canada, 5, all Windows. Future Shop, 3, Windows. Netlink, 8, Windows. Dixons, one, Windows. Comet, two - both with Windows pre-loaded, but one (it comes in a couple of colors, so there's two search results, if you're duplicating my results) with an Android dual boot! Finally!
So, Acer goes 1 for 44. Hey, that's one better than Asus. Swing, batter batter...
So, well, hey, we're not doing so great with the market leaders. Still, Mr. Telic is keen on HP and (especially) Dell, so let's take a look at them, shall we?
So, Dell. Yes, Dell sells Ubuntu. Three current models with a current Ubuntu release, a netbook, a laptop, a desktop, all at reasonably competitive prices. That's not horrible. It's about as well as any distributor has done for a major OEM deal. So, moderate kudos to Canonical there. Yes. Now, excuse me while I pile on.
One, do you know how Dell expects you to get to that page? You go to www.dell.com, where you see precisely no mention of anything remotely to do with Linux. You then click on 'For Home' (but not any of the drop-down options under it, none of them gets you anywhere you can buy an Ubuntu system). This takes you to a big, busy page, where you may notice the bold-face, fairly prominent strapline reading "Windows® . Life without WallsTM . Dell recommends Windows 7." What you're going to have to work harder to notice is the third section of the sidebox labelled "Essential PC Links", which is headed "PC Operating Systems" (you'll have to scroll down to see it, unless you have a very high resolution and/or very small fonts). Here, under four different types of Windows, is a link called "Open-Source PCs" (and if that doesn't scream "Buy Me!" to the average PC buyer, I don't know what does!) Click this, and you get taken through a buffer page which starts out "We’re glad you found Dell’s Ubuntu website." (well, yes, you did make it quite an excursion, I think the pat on the back is deserved...) and which has a small 'Shop for Ubuntu' button right at the bottom (I missed it the first two times I saw the page) which takes you, finally, to the page I linked to right off the top, where you can actually buy Dell systems with Ubuntu pre-loaded.
Whew. You think the above causes Microsoft to lose huge amounts of sleep? I'm betting no.
The models sold here are the Mini 10n, the Studio XPS 7100 n-Series, and the Inspiron 15n ('n' seems to be Dell shorthand for 'comes with Ubuntu'). Try this. Pull down the 'Laptops & Netbooks' menu and click 'Mini - Netbooks'. You get the Mini 10 and Mini 10v Nickelodeon Edition. Do you get the Mini 10n? No, you do not. The only way you get the Mini 10n is to find your way to the Ubuntu ghetto page. Try it for the laptop - 'Laptops and Netbooks -> Inspiron'. Again, you see the non-n, Windows-y models; you don't see the n, Ubuntu models. Only with the 7100 is there a 'Looking for Ubuntu?' button under the 'Customize' button for the Windows config. Dell really doesn't seem to try at all to make it easy to buy an Ubuntu system unless you go looking for it, it seems. (For bonus fun, go to the Ubuntu ghetto and click on the picture of the Mini 10n system, rather than the 'Personalize' button. It takes you to the main Mini page...where the 10n isn't listed. Same deal if you click 'Product details'. headdesk no cookies for you! It's like they fill the page with booby-trapped links which pull you out of the tiny tiny sliver of the Dellverse where you can actually buy an Ubuntu system...)
Quick price check. The base config of the 10n is $299, with 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard disk, 802.11n wireless, a webcam, and a 3-cell battery. The base config of the Mini 10, with Windows 7 Starter, is $299 for identical specs - except you get a 6-cell battery. So the Windows model is slightly better, for the same price. The 15n costs $579; the $529 model of the Inspiron 1545, with Windows 7 Home Premium, has a bigger hard disk (500GB vs. 250GB), more RAM (4GB vs. 3GB), and a better battery (6 cell vs. 4 cell). So the Windows model is $50 less with better specs. The XPS 7100n, again, is the best story: the Ubuntu model is $459, versus a Windows model with exactly identical tech specs for $499. Finally.
So Dell's netbook story is a single model with inferior specs to the Windows model, which you can only find on a rather well-hidden special page, for the same price as the Windows model. It has a laptop which costs more for worse specs, and only the single desktop model seems to have positive elements to it. Isn't it sad that this is the best we've managed?
Finally on this little tour of depression, HP is up. As far as I can find, HP offers a single netbook model with Linux pre-loaded - the Mini 2102, in its build-to-order incarnation. (They previously offered the Mi editions of three other models, and the 2133, but these are no longer available; they have an ARM-based smartbook with Android pre-loaded coming up). I can't find anything that discusses Linux for non-server machines on hp.com, anywhere - clicking through I see nothing, searching for 'Linux' or 'SUSE' just brings up a bunch of server-related pages clearly aimed at enterprise server purchasers. I was only able to track this system down through the third party Linux Netbook site, which has handy listings of pretty much every Linux netbook that's ever existed. If you go to the main Mini 2102 page - not sure if that link will work, it's one of those crazy ones full of numbers, but it's what I've got - there's no indication that Linux is available on it, though on the general Mini page there's a small mention of "SUSE Linux Enterprise 11" and "FreeDOS" in the Operating System box. To actually buy it with SUSE, you have to click 'Configure your model', then 'Configure PC' (why there's so many freaking pages to click through on major vendor sites I will never figure out), which takes you to the Small Business site, where you click 'Configurable', then 'Configure and Buy'. You can probably short-circuit that a bit by going straight in through the Small Business site, but jesus. Here you can change the operating system to SUSE Linux, take out the OS Label and EnergyStar Label (yikes, big loss), and arrive - finally - at a Mini 2102 configuration with SUSE Linux preloaded, for...$461. If you ditch Bluetooth, you can get down to $452. Now, if you reverse all those steps and take the cheapest pre-configured Windows Mini 2102 model, you get the exact same specs - with Bluetooth - for $329. That means you're paying a 'Linux tax' (huh?) of $132 if you buy the model with SUSE installed. Boy, that's gonna get 'em stampeding through the doors, that is.
tl;dr summary: where the hell did all the Linux netbooks go? In 2007 you couldn't buy a netbook with Windows; in 2008 to 2009 you could still walk into a big box store just about anywhere and pick from a few with Linux; now, you can buy one from one store in England with an Android dual boot, one from a hidden page on Ubuntu's site with an inferior configuration to its equally-priced Windows equivalent, and one from a very well hidden bit of HP's site with a $132 premium over its identically-specified Windows equivalent. Yes, please do go ahead and point out the ones I've missed in the comments - I had a quick look at MSI but not much else - but it ain't gonna be much compared to the flood of Windows I found here.
This is a freaking far cry from having the majority of the market by 2012. It makes me wonder why there hasn't been more shouting, aside from this SJVN article back in May. If the netbook is the forefront of Linux's assault on the general computing market...well, yikes. Look, I know this is pretty depressing, and not in itself terribly productive. But I think it's important to have a clear-eyed view of things. The Linux press has a tendency to report the good news and ignore the bad; there was a lot of trumpeting of those 30-40% numbers back in 2008-2009, but it seems no-one's too keen to note how things haven't been going so well since then. It's important to have a clear view of where we are, and right now, where we are - for Linux in the traditional consumer computing market - is not a very good place. I'm not claiming to have the answers for how to make it better, and I know it's a hard thing to sort out; the cynical side of me can come up with a lot of explanations as to where all those pre-loads went, and all of them involve large amounts of money going out of Microsoft bank accounts. In a way I'm fortunate that the fortunes of Red Hat and Fedora aren't really tied up in this hellhole of a market. But if you do have a keen interest in that market...pay attention.