Less than a year ago, cheap, Atom-powered mini-laptops were a novelty. Now netbooks are shaking up the regular laptop industry - and the operating system world, too.
Netbooks are taking marketshare and mindshare, thanks in large part to their low prices. (Click here for the latest reviews of netbooks and mini-laptops.)
They're shaking up another market, too: operating systems. Of the three major families of consumer operating systems, it's become increasingly clear that one is positioned to take the lead in the growing netbook market: Windows.
How did this come about? Microsoft appears to have learned a lesson about transformative PC hardware from the One Laptop Per Child project. Interest in the devices prompted Redmond to marshal its resources to provide cheap Windows alternatives in emerging markets where the OLPCs running Linux might have flourished. Early netbooks such as the Asus Eee ran Linux, but manufacturers -- and eventually, Microsoft -- recognised that Linux wasn't going to cut it for many consumers.
Selling XP on netbooks didn't fit with Microsoft's original plans for migrating the world to Vista, but that was before it became apparent that many consumers and businesses were having a tough time with the bloated Vista operating system -- if they bothered upgrading at all. Microsoft has moved on to preparing the world for its next OS, and it's very telling that an early demo of Windows 7 was shown on a netbook. The company sees an opportunity in netbooks, even while Apple remains MIA in the low-end notebook market.
As for Linux netbooks, they will continue to be purchased by open-source enthusiasts as well as people who are tempted by price or a casual interest in trying out the open-source operating system. But many more people buying netbooks will stick with XP, and eventually Windows 7, which offer a familiar interface and connections to commonly used software and devices.
Netbooks offer another threat to Linux as well: the attraction of converting an old laptop to Ubuntu or some other distro fades when the cost of getting a brand-new Windows netbook is so cheap. Millions of households have the laptop equivalent of an '83 Cadillac Coupe De Ville with 150,000 miles - expensive clunkers that are seldom taken out owing to their size and slow speed. At one time, these old Windows 95, 98, and Me machines would be prime targets for Linux overhauls.
Considering it's now possible to get a new, internet-ready netbook with Windows XP for around £200, it's safe to say many people will simply not bother with the hassles associated with putting Linux on an old laptop.
Ian Lamont blogs for The Industry Standard.