A new Linux netbook based on Moblin will be introduced this week, and it may represent a new way that the Linux community is approaching the mass market.
Leaders at the first Linuxcon Conference in Portland, Oregon, hinted at an announcement to come this week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco that they say will reassert Linux's initial momentum in the netbook market.
"You're going to see this week interesting new netbooks coming out that are killer. They have the cool factor and they're priced right," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.
He believes that within a year, "no one will buy hardware or software". Laptops will be free with a wireless service contract. Only free software like Linux can support that model, he said. "Microsoft's economics don't fit into that at all," he said.
While Linux initially had a larger portion of netbook market share, Microsoft has now taken the lead. But that's not going to continue, due to market forces and new products, Zemlin said.
"Microsoft went in and gave away XP for free to shore up market share in an emerging space that's fast growing. But they can't sustain that forever, they can't do it with Windows 7," he said.
An Intel executive believes that Microsoft will raise prices for vendors with the release of Windows 7. "What I hear when I talk to netbook vendors is Microsoft does not want to repeat the extremely aggressive pricing with XP Home. They want to significantly increase the price for Windows 7 netbooks," said Dirk Hohndel, chief technology officer of Intel's Open Source Technology Center. XP Home is the Windows operating system that Microsoft sells for netbooks.
Ultimately he expects different tiers of netbooks. The low-tier, low-cost netbooks will ship with Linux and Moblin. A higher tier will cost more and feature Windows 7, he said.
But beyond cost, there will be more significant differences between netbooks running Windows 7 and variants of Linux, he said. That goes to the heart of a change that leaders of the Linux community urged: create something new and attractive rather than simply mimicking market leaders.
"We need to stop pretending that it will be a drop-in replacement [for Windows] and make it something better," said Bob Sutor, vice president for open source and Linux in IBM's software group. "This will be a major thing that determines the future. I think making it a complete drop-in solution is a dead-end strategy. They've got a little bit more money," he said, referring to Microsoft.
Microsoft has market share and mind share and in order to win either, Linux will need to find a niche based on "what it does really well at what price for which people", Sutor said.
The new netbook running Moblin will follow that philosophy, Hohndel said. "What we're trying to do with Moblin is not to do a general-purpose PC but focus on ... a different experience designed for young people on the go or someone who wants a second computer to take to Starbucks and Twitter," he said.
Linux failed to retain its early lead in netbooks because it was trying to emulate Windows. "We were trying to win at their game. We in the Linux community are trying to be successful by mimicking what someone else is doing successfully. To me, that is a losing strategy," he said.
One of the biggest shortcomings to Linux-based netbooks so far is a poor user interface, he said. The community must find a way to attract designers "but also change the attitude of developers to listen to designers", he said.
Moblin is a Linux-based operating system designed for netbooks, mobile internet devices and other small and midsize products. The project was spearheaded by Intel. Acer has said it plans to roll out products using Moblin. This week's announcement may come from Dell.
The Portland event is the first Linuxcon conference, a get-together designed to allow organisations interested in Linux to find specific information about how to use the open-source software and for Linux developers to prove the success of their projects, Zemlin said.