Netbook market leaders, including Acer and MSI Computer are already flirting with models based on Intel's Atom processor and running the Intel-blessed Moblin operating system.
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Intel Corp., meanwhile, now publicly supports demos running Google Android applications atop the mobile Linux distribution, suggesting users won't necessarily have to make a choice between two of the highest-profile Microsoft alternatives.
Both developments signal that resellers and VARs should bone up on the pros and cons of netbooks running non-Windows operating systems since questions about the technology are inevitable.
Originally intended as low-cost consumer devices, small business owners and other professionals weary of the limited Web browsing and email management capabilities found on many PDAs and smart phones have embraced netbooks, SMB solution providers say.
Netbooks sport gee-whiz factor
"It's a fairly typical scenario within my SMB clients that if an owner gets wind of a netbook, they want one," said M.J. Shoer, president and virtual chief technology officer for Jenaly Technology Group Inc., a VAR based in Portsmouth, N.H.
"Some customers are moving into the 'I don't care phase,' " said J. Alejandro Rosado Jr., CEO and technology architect for 12:34 MicroTechnologies Inc., an IT solution provider in Lancaster, Pa. "If you just want to be on the Web, does it really matter what browser you are in or what platform you are on?"
Windows remains the default choice for some
For Marc Harrison, president of SMB Silicon East in Manalapan, N.J., though, the answer is still unequivocally "Yes."
Harrison's team has been burned by incompatibilities, support issues and "brain-dead" browsers associated with some of the thin client devices -- even those from some top-tier OEMs. He advises clients to continue making the extra investment in Windows XP for netbooks, right now at least, to ensure that these systems behave well in existing computing environments. Harrison and other solution providers hope the forthcoming Windows 7 release will include a netbook-friendly derivative, as Microsoft has promised.
"My conclusion is that in the end, even for a small premium (say $50), resellers will continue to recommend Windows-based netbooks and thin clients," Harrison said. "My feeling is that Microsoft is well aware of this and will price Windows 7 for netbooks accordingly, as they've done with Windows XP. Of course, the competitive pressure of Moblin and other OSes is what's motivating Microsoft. So, if for no other reason, having a choice of OS benefits everyone through lower prices."
Shoer and Rosada agree that Moblin-configured netbooks will find a limited audience in businesses that already have a serious Windows bias because they will be more difficult to manage from a security and software updates standpoint. But solution providers that ignore Moblin netbooks altogether do so at their own risk, they say.
"They will penetrate at some level," Shoer said, pointing to Intel's dominance in processors as well as its move to acquire embedded systems leader Wind River Systems Inc. Taken together, Intel's support of Moblin and Wind River signal that it is looking far beyond desktops and data center servers for future growth opportunities.
Patrick Ciccarelli, CEO and senior consultant for San Francisco-based Varsity Technologies, believes two potential prospects for non-Windows netbooks are businesses that are evaluating technology with an eye to sustainability credentials and K-12 education accounts. The price point and the power profile of these devices are especially compelling, he said. What's more, increasing numbers of customers are willing to be flexible about how applications are delivered.
"What we want to do is get the licensing off the hardware," Ciccarelli said. "What we want to sell is delivery over the network. This is definitely piquing interest."