My bigger concern with Microsoft – netbooks

We’ve been having a discussion on the meaning and impact of Microsoft’s TomTom suit, and there seems to be quite a bit of suspicion and angst over Microsoft’s patent and licensing tactics. However, I believe if one wants to see the Microsoft of old, the one known for pressuring partners, undercutting competitors and generally bullying the market, the better place to find it is in the netbook market.

I’ve already written about how difficult it was to find a good selection of Linux-based netbooks, and that discussion included some suspicions that Microsoft might be acting like its old self as it tries to stem manufacturer and distributor defections from Windows XP and Vista, particularly on netbooks. I believe CAOS commentator ObiWanKenobi summed up this sentiment well:

This ‘not wanting to sell Linux’ may be the result of some ‘carrot or stick’ action from Microsoft. M$ (sic) can afford to offer some favorable conditions on Windows to sellers who agree ‘not to want to sell Linux.’ They sustain it for a while, until the competition is strangled. Then they raise the prices. This is a classical case of dumping. Waving a big stick may be even more effective. Intimidating in a subtle way does not cost them anything. Of course, nobody knows about this because it is all done secretly.

‘Not wanting to sell Linux’ manifests itself in many ways. Dell hides their Linux PCs on their web site so that you have to look for them by using Google. Netbook producers equip their creations with crippled versions of Linux which can perform only a few basic functions. Linux can be also put on a more expensive hardware version to make them look less attractive than their Windows-equipped cousins.

While Windows 7 is supposed to be a game-changer for Microsoft in netbooks, I don’t think the company is waiting for that to flex as much muscle as it can on netbooks.

Mostly, as a desktop Linux fan and proponent of customer choice, I find it disheartening and disturbing that my Linux options are severely limited for netbooks such as the Acer Aspire One, at least while I continue to reside in the U.S. If I were in Canada, my Linux options grow significantly. In the UK — fellow CAOS captain Matt Aslett has covered how the Brits are also getting in on the netbook fun, with Linux helping to keep the cost low. Unfortunately, here in the U.S. and perhaps other geographies, most models and colors available are the Windows XP versions.

I think this may indicate Microsoft’s strategy against Linux has more to do with the market than the courtroom. As I said in a response on our blog last week, I don’t doubt that the TomTom suit is really aimed at Linux because Microsoft says so. I doubt that it is a Linux attack because I don’t think Microsoft really wants to go there. Does Microsoft really want to play the challenger in SCO II? Again, I don’t think the company is up for that fight.

However, open source’s old nemesis Steve Ballmer made clear Microsoft is ready to fight in areas where the company is struggling and competing with Linux, rather than dominating it, and netbooks top the list. My own experience indicates there is an odd limit to the supply of Linux-powered netbooks in the face of demand for them. Adding insult to injury, when I requested distributors to notify when the Linux model I wanted was available, I was sent offers for netbooks with Windows XP.

It’s not all bad news, though. Consider Dell, which reports one in three of its Mini netbooks sold run Linux. This is consistent with the 30% share of netbook market maintained by Linux, according to most sources. And while I’m encouraged by manufacturers such as Dell and Asus and hardware makers such as Freescale all continuing to offer Linux netbooks and looking to the future with Linux in their arsenals, I’m very concerned to see my netbook choices limited based on OS or geography. This, to me, is most reminscent of the ‘old Microsoft,’ the one that bullies and strong-arms and entices partners and competitors through sweetheart deals and plain old anti-competitive behavior.

Some have already made a link between Microsoft’s TomTom suit and netbooks and other mobile devices. I find this more plausible than the idea that Microsoft would directly sue over alleged Linux infringements on its patents, but I still think the market, not the courtroom, is where we need to be most cautious of Microsoft’s old ways.

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24 comments ↓

#1 littlenoodles on 03.03.09 at 6:22 pm

What needs to be done is for some government somewhere to mandate a standard price list for OEM Windows. Allow volume discounts, but once you’re into the 1000’s of copies, every player pays the same price.

If they want to sell XP at a super-low price to compete with Linux, then they have to sell it at that price for desktop machines too. If Vista or Windows 7 isn’t worth the price differential, well then bargain hunters will buy XP and get a good deal. But Microsoft will not be able dump XP into selected markets at a predatory price to kill off budding competition.

Under those circumstances, I imagine Microsoft would just walk away from the Netbook market, which would be fine for Linux. Or XP netbooks would be come a bit more expensive – also fine for Linux. None of which is great for Microsoft, but who says fair competition *has* to be good for Microsoft?

#2 Bruce on 03.03.09 at 9:04 pm

This is an excellent suggestion. Really. Since most government’s have allowed M$ to maintain what would otherwise be an illegal monopoly in exchange those government could insist upon open pricing … in order to protect what is left of competition.

This approach might work well for M$ Office as well such that it could put an end to the unreasonably high difference between the standard version and the “Home” version which is obviously designed to blunt the impact of OpenOffice.

#3 Chris Noble on 03.04.09 at 10:02 am

It’s an interesting suggestion, but if I were MS and that conditon were imposed, I would simply launch ‘Windows XP NetBook edition’.

#4 webster on 03.03.09 at 6:55 pm

The Monopoly has sued directly over a patent they allege is in Linux. Check the complaint. Don’t listen to what they say in the media. Check lwhat they write in court.

#5 Obi-Juan on 03.03.09 at 6:58 pm

Who cares what Micro$atan does? They are a walking corpse. They are beating up the vendors to force them not to sell Linux netbooks, everyone knows that. After not being able to find an Aspire One 120GB without XP, I bought one from Costco and dual booted it with Ubuntu. It works great and those sad little clowns at Micro$atan can kiss my Linux powered butt!

#6 Debianero Rumbero on 03.03.09 at 8:02 pm

@Obi-Juan, nice, so you’re paying M$ tax.

What a weird concept of punishing M$ you *do* have.

#7 Richard on 03.03.09 at 10:08 pm

The geographic issue is my main concern, living in Australia you cannot find any desktop machines from major manufacturers available with Linux. Maybe a couple of netbooks and even that is limited. I have even emailed several main large pc makes and off course not even a reply email. So much for good customer service !! So as long as this crap still goes on there is going to be a dominant Windows market. People need and want choice, manufacturers please let us have a choice !!!!

#8 Cliff on 03.03.09 at 10:24 pm

I believe what this may come down to more than anything M$ is doing and/or offering, is the fact that most computers (including laptops) with windows installed also come with “trialware” for antivirus, CD rippers, etc.

The sad fact is most consumers go ahead and purchase a subscription to these services/software when the trial has expired. And when they do, the manufacturer gets a cut.

All the free software offered by the various Linux distros only cuts into their profit margin. Especially as they pass the M# tax onto the consumer.

#9 simion314 on 03.04.09 at 12:26 am

Here in Romania, Europe you can find laptops and desktops without windows.

#10 Felis silvestris on 03.04.09 at 4:16 am

Norwegian web shops sell computers without windows. Netbooks with Linux are available on the street and the web, but so far all hard-disk netbooks are XP only. I’m looking for a netbook for my net transatlantic trip and will push for a disk version. In vain, I’m afraid, but we need to make our voices heard – in the shops.

#11 Roy Schestowitz on 03.04.09 at 7:51 am

Hi, Jay,

The Microsoft friends at IDG/IDC is spreading lies at the moment, citing the
US-only figures from puppet NPD (see links below). Not surprisingly, the lies
come from Microsoft faithful Preston Gralla who refuses to say that it refers to
one region where Linux adoption is also the lowest.

GNU/Linux runs on 30%-40% of sub-notebooks.

Netbooks Open Linux Window at BETT

,—-[ Quote ]
| On the same stand a large screen showed off the design appeal of the latest
| Ubuntu. This includes multiple windows rotating or rescaling. As this is
| better understood some Netbook users may return to Linux. Asustek Chairman
| Jonney Shih has predicted that about 60 percent of Eee PCs to be shipped in
| 2009 will have Windows XP.
`—-

http://english.ohmynews.com/ArticleView/article_view.asp?menu=A11100&no=384681&rel_no=1&back

#12 FredW on 03.04.09 at 3:26 pm

ARM cpu’s are going to change the game. The market has been chasing the prices DOWN. The only way to get sub $200.00 right now is by switching to an ARM based system. Which would give you the choice of a full powered Linux system capable of doing all it’s intel breathern can with even better battery life and less heat. Or going Android on Linux. Or Windows CE.

Windows CE does not look great as a netbook OS. It still eats battery power, wireless is flaky, you look like windows but you cant run windows apps. The apps that you can run, have all been built for a 320×240 screen, not 1024×600.

ARM plus bluetooth plus under $200.00 is going to be hard for Microsoft to beat.

My prediction: Some chinese cell phone manufacturer is going to get into the game. They have no line of PC’s that Microsoft can leverage by offering better deals.

#13 ObiWanKenobi on 03.04.09 at 4:10 pm

A perfect monopoly?
Bill Gates reportedly does not allow his wife and kids to get “Apples”:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29493821/
http://dailycontributor.com/200903033724/bill-gates-bans-family-from-using-apple-products/
– iPods, iPhones etc. are forbidden.

#14 Sly Coder on 03.04.09 at 6:32 pm

Here in Australia, we have a severely limited range of Linux-based netbooks. Unlike in the US, where you can buy Linux-based netbooks from Dell and HP, we aren’t allowed these here. And furthermore, we aren’t allowed to buy them from Amazon.com, either.

Our ‘results’, therefore, would help skew the marketshare towards Windows, in the netbook stats race.

#15 Evan Walter on 03.04.09 at 6:52 pm

The key to wide acceptance of Linux on netbooks lies with producers who don’t do business with MS. Only manufacturers who make computers that can’t run Windows are immune from MS bullying. We should all buy computers only from manufacturers that use ARM, MIPS and other non-X86 technology. Only by doing this will we help to build a whole new ecosphere that is completely free from MS influence. Support independent manufacturers!

#16 TripleII on 03.04.09 at 8:29 pm

@littlenoodles.
A better idea, one that actually follows anti-trust laws (yes, we know how scared MS is of the bought and paid for DOJ, lol) is simply any computer sold in the US must be available without an OS. Right there on every OEM website, you pick the OS or lack of OS option. If the user wants a pre-installed OS, they pick whichever one they want. The biggest scam Microsoft has perpetrated and continues to enforce is the idea that “Windows is free”. You never see the computer price as a line item without a baseline MS OS. You only see the upgrade prices, and the world says “I’ll take the free included version”.

Since the DOJ won’t enforce the laws of the land, what is needed is a flood of buyers (hard to organize) refusing the EULA and costing, say HP, a boatload of money for not offering it without an OS. Imagine if, say, a group of 50,000 people bought 50,000 laptops and then went into an all out blitz enforcing the EULA refund. It won’t happen, but after losing $5M in just labor costs, plus the $5M in refunds, they might rethink things and say for goodness sake, let’s offer it without an OS to stop the madness.

It is illegal, and hence the reason you WILL get a refund before having to go to court, to enforce the sale of a 3rd parties product as a condition of purchasing your product. Microsoft goes to great lengths to make sure OEMs make it as hard as possible thought, and a money losing proposition.

I would like the EU (the US won’t do it, Microsoft owns the process) to simply enforce “Pre-installed is fine, however, every computer sold must be available without a pre-installed OS”. There goes the OEM lock in and the ability to coerce OEMs to not offer Linux with their slush funds.

TripleII

#17 TripleII on 03.04.09 at 8:33 pm

@ Felis silvestris
Right here, not sure if you can buy it, but an HD based no MS tax Acer Aspire One.
http://www.amazon.com/Acer-AOA150-1382-8-9-Inch-Netbook-Processor/dp/B001KAGF0I/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=electronics&qid=1236216707&sr=8-1

TripleII

#18 David Gerard on 03.05.09 at 10:55 am

There’s a GBP100 MIPS-based notebook that’s readily available in the UK under a variety of brand names:

http://littlelinuxlaptop.com/

The built-in firmware is horribly restrictive … but they’ve hacked together their own distro image for it. As soon as I hear good reports on that firmware distro, I’ll be getting one.

#19 Brian Assaf on 03.05.09 at 3:21 pm

I just purchased an asus eee pc from newegg. It comes with Xandros Linux (I will install Ubuntu on it when it arrives though.) Either way, it is sad that MS let XP live a bit a longer (when the support drop was due this year, or was it last?) to ensure no other operating system could have free reign from Windows… MS wasn’t even interested in netbooks until a market for them emerged.

Anyway, Dell is a good option, the only reason I didn’t pick up the mini 9 was the battery option (only 3 cell.) The only advice I can give is try to get a machine pre-loaded with Linux, so it counts as a Linux sale.
Show there is a demand, that’s basically the only way to get things to change.

Until MS has Windows 7 out (end of this year, next year?), is it fun to run a 7-8 year old OS with some patches in 2009? It carries the same baggage, need for anti-virus, anti-spyware, the same open ports (raw sockets, netbios), phone-home activation for install, WGA, etc. And for what? What do people do on netbooks that NEED Windows?

P.S. What about netbooks with 64-bit mips or arm. I’d be hard pressed to list any application I use that doesn’t have a 64-bit version, or isn’t portable (look at what architectures debian supports)

#20 Benson on 03.26.09 at 10:06 pm

Finally, I thought I’m the only one who has this problem. It is quite sad to see that the only way not to contribute to M$ tax in this region is to pay Apple Tax. In order to stay competitive, I really wish that this region will have more Linux enabled notebooks/netbooks. I’m quite sick and tired of all these so called tech savy people who have no idea what NTFS is or anything other than Windaz

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