Will Windows XP keep ruling the netbook?

Since the shipment last year of the earliest netbooks, Linux has fallen drastically behind Windows XP, according to new research by two industry analyst groups, Ovum and the NPD Group. Meanwhile, some people are touting both Windows 7 and the Android variant of Linux as future replacements of sorts for the existing netbook operating systems.

Specifically, XP's share of netbook units shipped soared from less than 10% in the first half of 2008 to 96% as of February 2009, according to data released this week by NPD Retail Tracking Service.

"After a strong start, Linux netbooks have been overtaken by Windows," concurred Laurent Lachal, an Ovum analyst, in summing up the results of a new netbook report by Ovum.

But the Ovum analyst also pinpointed Google's Android as a Linux distribution that might work out better than its predecessors as a netbook OS.

Just this week, an Acer executive cast doubt on the notion that either Android or Windows 7 has reached readiness yet for netbooks.

Undoubtedly, the massive shift to XP is partly due to the late arrival of viable Windows-based netbooks. Asus led the way with a Linux netbook at the start of 2008. By November, however, Asus' emphasis had turned to XP -- in the United States, at least.

"Linux is going well for us, especially in Europe. But now we're focusing on Windows XP, becauuse a lot of people find it easier to use," Josh Norem, senior technical marketing specialist at Asus, told Betanews at a pre-CES press event in New York City in January.

The reversing tide impacted other vendors, too. In September of '08, when Dell rolled out with its first netbooks, only the Windows XP edition shipped initially.

But observers of various persuasions -- ranging from Microsoft to Canonical, the vendor supporting the Ubuntu flavor of Linux -- have reported high return rates for Linux PCs.

"Users simply expect the Windows experience. When they realize their Linux-based netbook PC doesn't deliver that same quality of experience, they get frustrated and take it back," contended Brandon LeBlanc, a "Windows Experience" blogger for Microsoft.

"Here's a telling stat: In the UK, Carphone Warehouse dropped Linux-based netbook PCs, citing customer confusion as a reason for a whopping 1-in-5 return rate."

In a post on the Microsoft blog last Friday, LeBlanc also declared that, over the year ahead, the next generation of netbook PCs will be outfitted with Windows 7, for "even richer experiences and greater utility."

At the very same time, Ovum has forecast a "new generation of lower-priced, but less easy to use and less capable netbooks" for later in 2009, according to Ovum's Lachal.

Linux vendors intrigued by this new, "sub-$200" netbook market should concentrate on "the netbook as an appliance and on specialized distributions, especially Android (which is currently focused on smartphones). These are more likely than generic distributions like Ubuntu to make it in the netbook MID (mobile Internet device) space," Lachal suggested.

Asus and FreeScale Semiconductor both revealed Android netbook plans in February, "And more will follow," the analyst predicted, in a March 16 blog post on telecomseurope.net.

Yet if consumers were frustrated by earlier $400 Linux netbooks, will those high return rates really get any lower for sub-$200 Android netbooks, especially when carriers like AT&T are already selling subsidized Windows netbooks from Acer, LG, and Dell for under $100?

Acer, for one, does not seem to be leaning in an Android direction at the moment for netbooks, despite its announcement of an Android smartphone in February and its reported activities in testing Android on bigger devices. At an Acer launch of new PCs earlier this week in New Jersey, Jim Wong, an Acer senior VP, maintained that Android doesn't yet provide the ability to "view a full Web" on netbooks.

Wong added that Windows 7 Starter Kit might not be a "good environment" for netbooks, either -- not at this point, anyhow.

But Android and Windows 7 are both still in the early stages -- and Microsoft is definitely undeterred about the future role of its 2009-model OS on netbooks.

"Looking forward, we can confidently say that no matter how netbook PC hardware evolves, we're gearing up to ensure that Windows 7 will run great on them," asserted Microsoft's LeBlanc. "We've been testing Windows 7 on netbook PCs since before Windows 7 was feature complete, and our plan is to enable these small notebook PCs to run any edition of Windows 7."

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