UMPCs Will Not Lead to More Linux Desktop Share

Here are a few links of interest in relation to a discussion at LXer about Linux desktop adoption, UMPCs, and the mathematics of market share. (Edit: It appears I’ve been banned from posting at LXer. Fine. Whatever.)

Our first article of interest asks whether UMPCs like the Asus Eee are Windows killers. The conclusion: no. Far from being 1:1 replacements for Windows units, there are a couple interesting points. First, these tend to be “second computers” and not primary units. So they’re being used alongside Windows computers. Second, these units don’t function equivalently as Windows computers — the companies even give warning about adding repositories or changing distros.

The little Acers can lead you into hell on earth. I’m still struggling with sound, having had to switch distributions to get wireless to work. To try to cure a trackpad sensitivity issue, I installed Synaptics [trackpad] drivers under OpenSuSE. The machine would start but, because the driver changed an X configuration file, it would not load the graphical desktop. I managed to restore this without re-installing, but it was difficult and very painful….”

Contemplate explaining Synaptic repositories to your parents, or your young children, and the Achilles’ heel of the new devices becomes evident: they work fine as advertised, but any changes are at your own risk. If you recommend one of these units to family or friend, count on spending lots of long nights helping them get the devices set up the right way — and cleaning up the mistakes they’ve made….

With the momentum is has already gathered, could the Eee beat off its rivals to become the Holy Grail of Linux computing — that killer product that brings Linux into the mainstream?

Don’t bet on it, says Hugo Ortega, principal of Tegatech, a distributor that handles the Eee alongside competing devices such as HP’s 2133 Mini-Note PC and ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) that run Windows XP and Vista and range well past the $3000 mark.

The HP 2133s are outselling the Eee PC 20 to 1,” Ortega says, “and Linux only accounts for probably 20% of Eee PC sales and less than 5% of overall UMPC sales. The fact that there’s a $500 notebook out there is a big plus, but we find most [buyers] are more than happy to use a license in their office to upgrade them to [Windows] XP.”

That the Eee is even selling Linux versions at all is a big coup: previous Linux-based UMPCs, from Chinese manufacturer Beijing Peace East Technology, were offered by Tegatech but ended up being withdrawn after “we had not one phone call on them,” he adds.

Herein lies the vast difference between perception and reality, which seems to be rapidly diluting the value proposition of Linux-based mini notebooks. ASUS and Acer may have overcome some users’ perceptions that Linux is too complicated or esoteric for mainstream use, but mainstream demand has caught up with the units as customers shy away from Linux once again.

Indeed, many manufacturers entering this class of notebook are doing so with Windows-only machines that seem poised to undo the Linux mindshare gains that the Eee made over the past year….

Asustek recently revised its distribution strategy, steering Linux-based Eee PCs towards resellers capable of providing more personalised support, while pushing Windows-based Eees into mass-market retailers.

Acer, which continues its commitment to Linux, is likely to take a similar path. “It’s a give and take between simplicity of usage for the masses versus full customisation,” says Lee. “The Linux version is really only to use exactly what is provided, and someone in the know can easily remove what’s been installed. But consumers are accustomed to the Windows environment, and the Windows version will be a stronger player eventually.”


You can’t underestimate the role of familiarity and comfort levels and learning curves. The kind of people already attracted to Linux or BSD aren’t typical of “average” computer users. Average users just want stuff to work, they don’t want to edit config files and most of them don’t want to see a shell. They didn’t like it in DOS so they bought Macs instead or waited for Windows. They want to download a zip or exe file, click and it installs itself — “Dependencies? WTF are dependencies, I just want to use the freaking application.” Windows has a simpler set of libraries; Linux isn’t standardized like that. That really does matter in adoption, or in why the masses won’t adopt Linux on their desktops.

Our next stop is an article noting that shipping of Eee units has waned by 15%. Acer is shipping more units with XP. Acer’s president thinks UMPCs may reach 10-15% of laptop sales. (More on this math with the next article.)

Asus has revealed that it shipped 1.7 million of the devices in the first six months of the year — 300,000 fewer than it had forecast, according to a report in the Digitimes….

Acer says it will ship 15,000 of the devices every day following the launch of a Windows XP version in July….

Acer president Scott Lin claims that netbooks will eventually comprise 10-15% of overall laptop sales, echoing earlier reports of a PC shipment boom because of the devices.

Not everyone is jumping on the UMPC bandwagon. Fujitsu sees the margins being untenable. This is a niche product with a small margin. This isn’t something where they can make much money even in volume.

More importantly, note that the overall laptop market is 271 million units and these currently make up a tiny fraction of that number. The number of Linux units is going to tumble as XP units become available. If this market does trend the way Lin suggested and the rate of growth is the same, you’re looking at 30 million units. Of those, you’ll see fewer Linux units in the ratio. And since the rate of growth will increase rather than stay the same, those Linux units will be about where they are in other desktop sales now. A drop in the bucket.

Some of the big computer companies put a positive spin on the low-cost machines, saying they welcome new categories. But they would just as soon this niche did not take off, given the relatively low profit margins.

“When I talk to PC vendors, the No. 1 question I get is, ‘How do I compete with these netbooks when what we really want to do is sell PCs that cost a lot more money?'” said J. P. Gownder, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Even as some PC vendors are jumping into the fray, others say they are resisting. Fujitsu, one of the world’s top 10 personal computer makers, said it believes the low-cost netbook trend is a dangerous one for the bottom line.

“We’re sitting on the sidelines not because we’re lazy. We’re sitting on the sidelines because even if this category takes off, and we get our piece of the pie, it doesn’t add up,” said Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product management for Fujitsu. “It’s a product that essentially has no margin.” Stan Glasgow, chief executive of Sony Electronics, said, “We are not looking at competing with Asus.” But he said the company is investigating what consumers want in a second PC….

With an emphasis not in onboard applications (like word processing ), but Internet-based ones like Google Docs, the Linux-based Eee PC sold out its 350,000 global inventory. It has been in short supply ever since, said Jackie Hsu, president of the American division of Asus. Everex has sold around 20,000 of its CloudBook, which sells for about $ 350.

The sales are a veritable drop in the bucket compared with the 271 million desktop and laptop PCs shipped globally last year. But there is an intensifying debate about how big the category can become, and what segment of the market finds these computers appealing.

IDC, a market research firm, is predicting that the category could grow from fewer than 500, 000 in 2007 to 9 million in 2012 as the market for second computers expands in developed economies….

William Calder, an Intel spokesman, said that the cost of the Atom for PC makers is around $44, compared with $100 for a state-of-the-art chip. He said that Intel executives think the market for low-cost PCs is too big to pass up, though it does raise a potential threat to more powerful and more profitable computing lines.

Microsoft has been a reluctant participant, too. Even though it is no longer selling its Windows XP operating system software, it made an exception for makers of these low-cost laptops and desktops. Microsoft said it was responding to a groundswell of consumer interest in the lowcost machines, but some makers of those machines say Microsoft did so reluctantly because it did not want to lose market share to Linux.

Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst with Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm, said that while the big computer companies have been caught off guard by the market’s potential, they are finding little choice but to dive in.

Finally, here’s the baby that may have started it all. It’s no longer Linux-only. The XO does XP. And XP appears to be a better solution, once you adjust the storage requirements and the price. Well, it never really was a $100 laptop, was it.

Utzschneider blogged in May that the Windows port to the XO “is a snappy release that doesn’t cut features or functionality in order to work in the constrained memory and storage environment of the XO.” The build is said to support all the laptop’s features, including networking, speakers, microphone, and webcam. It also allows the display to pivot into its “e-book” configuration, and change into a power-saving, sunlight-readable monochrome mode (shown above), according to Microsoft….

Unlimited Potential’s Bohdan Raciborski said the XO can boot Windows XP in about 50 seconds, four times faster than its previously standard Linux environment. By tapping into the device’s power-saving capabilities, it can also offer up to 20 hours of battery life, he added.

Microsoft starts with its “good news” that XP boots faster (but not four times faster) than Sugar; (1:05 into the video). Good going, folks. First off, it turns out that XP doesn’t boot that much faster, as the scene only shows a boot to user login, not to the full user interface….

Sugar and other Linux versions on the XO do take longer to boot; but once the suspend and hibernation features are completely working (and the current Update.1 Release Candidate has most of it working) — you’ll never need to turn it off, rarely reboot, and it recovers almost instantaneously from sleep, so this to me is a non-issue.

Well, it won’t be an issue once it works. XP is new to the XO game and it already has such functions working. Regardless of its faster boot time.

All of this shows a few things.

One, Linux is not seeing accelerated growth or adoption from UMPC sales. The number of units sold with Linux — when Linux was the only option! — have already peaked. Windows is new on the Eee scene and is already outselling the cheaper Linux versions. If you can get excited about 0.4% fluctuations in Linux desktop adoption and see it as turning the tables on Microsoft, you really need help. Especially considering the number of sites and videos showing one of the first Eee hacks: installing XP. More people were installing XP on Eee than alternative distros. Smell the coffee yet?

Two, these sales have been of secondary computers and so they do nothing to reduce the aggregate number of Windows desktops or Windows users. They have done nothing to reduce the number of Windows installs anywhere. The typical Eee owner has another computer that runs XP or Vista (or both). And if anything, these UMPCs have opened a new market for XP (which MS was ready to deprecate!). That means more Windows computers rather than fewer. Net. Gross. However you cut it. And that further dilutes the share of Linux on desktops.

Three, Linux versions haven’t been warmly received. This is a foreign OS to most people, and they’re on their own when they venture too far out of their abilities to manage it. They know how to install whatever application they want in Windows. They don’t have to fiddle around with config files to make hardware function properly. Etc. This matters. Especially when users get frustrated and choose to go back to the OS they know, no matter how they feel about it.

Finally, XP is working better on XO than Sugar does. XP is working better than Linux on XO, period. The anti-MS people working on OLPC can bitch as loud as they want to and promise the moon, but they’re still trying to deliver the kind of performance XP has achieved in a shorter time. Yes, XP requires other concessions like more storage. With storage prices ever tumbling, this is trivial. The point is, XP works and met the performance goals the Sugar team have failed to meet thus far.

There were two devices that were intended to showcase Linux on the desktop — to change lives, to change the world. The OLPC/XO hasn’t yet lived up to that promise. Now it will have XP available, and it runs better than Linux does on XO. And while cheap UMPCs have sold well with Linux, they’re selling even better with Windows.

That doesn’t bode so well for Linux. It bodes well for Microsoft.

If you don’t know where to pick and choose your fights, you’re going to lose a lot more often than you need to. There are many places where Linux excels. On the desktop, it hasn’t and it probably won’t excel. Why keep fighting a losing battle there rather than in areas where Linux already has been successful — like on servers, phones, PDAs, and media devices like DVRs, where users don’t need technical savvy to make it work right. Those working on putting Linux on devices like XO are still fiddling around with getting it to work properly, don’t expect people who can’t figure out an “intuitive” system like OSX or Windows to do much better.

I’m not against Linux devices or desktops. But Linux isn’t a panacea, it’s not for everyone. Moreover, the variety of open source software that desktop users can use in Linux can also be used in Windows. Why is it not enough to encourage the use of those programs instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Why tilt at windmills (or at Windows) when there are plenty of other inroads to be made?

One Response to “UMPCs Will Not Lead to More Linux Desktop Share”

  1. Hot Air at LinuxWorld, Microsoft Making More UMPC Moves « lucky13 Says:

    […] my post about the UMPC market and how it’s not making inroads — and probably won’t — for wider use of Linux on desktops. Explore posts in the […]

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