Does the Surface spat open the door for Linux?

Does the Surface spat open the door for Linux?

Summary: Acer's disquiet over Surface betrays the tough position manufacturers find themselves in. If Microsoft is no longer a reliable partner, what are the alternatives for kit makers who want to survive the post-PC era?


So, one of the big PC makers has come out and said it. According to Acer, Microsoft's hardware play with the Surface risks alienating the manufacturers that have been instrumental in the success of Windows.

"It will create a huge negative impact for the ecosystem and other brands may take a negative reaction," Acer's JT Wang was quoted as saying on Monday, while another top executive at the company said Acer was considering whether to find alternatives to the industry standard OS.

Surface tablet
With Microsoft pushing the Surface tablet, should hardware makers look to Linux instead of Windows? Image credit: CNET News

Fighting words, albeit words that came just after Microsoft admitted it was aware of this risk. But what is the alternative to Windows, really?

Android? With the Nexus 7, Google is doing much the same thing as Microsoft, by pushing its own brand on the hardware side. Moreover, Acer is the one major manufacturer of Android tablets that's actually seeing its shipments and market share fall.

Apple doesn't license its operating systems to other manufacturers, so that leaves non-Android Linux distributions: most likely, given its relative popularity and stated tablet plans, Ubuntu. Or maybe Open WebOS.

Time to jump?

It can be argued that two things have held Linux back until this point, certainly on the desktop. Firstly, consumers have overwhelmingly opted for Windows and, to a lesser extent, Mac OS X. Secondly (and related), for a manufacturer to seriously market machines based on desktop Linux would have meant incurring the wrath of Microsoft.

By bypassing its partners, Microsoft has effectively reneged on its side of this arrangement, so Acer must feel freer than before to do what it likes.

In the PC market, Acer has an incentive (other than revenge) to move away from, or at least downplay, Windows 8. The industry is reverberating with dark mutterings about the user experience on the desktop version. Here, we may be looking at another Vista situation, where manufacturers are forced to keep offering the last version of Windows (XP then, 7 now).

That gives users less incentive to upgrade and buy new kit, which means manufacturers need to look elsewhere if they are to avoid shrinking. So, either they push Linux desktops or they push tablets.

An Ubuntu tablet

Let's theorise that Acer or other top manufacturers start pushing Ubuntu tablets instead of Windows 8 tablets. How does that work as a pitch to the consumer?

One issue with switching to the flashy new Windows RT (the ARM-based tablet version) is that it means starting from scratch when it comes to apps. That alone makes it a good time for users to jump ship, although right now it would make the consumer more likely to buy an iPad than anything else.

Ubuntu tablet
Can Ubuntu Linux succeed on a tablet?

Because, when it comes to tablets, the iPad is where the apps are. On a personal note, I'm finding my Nexus 7 fantastic, but (games aside) most Android apps aren't that well optimised for tablets. iOS has been a serious tablet contender for longer than Android, and it shows — the iPad's app range makes it, for many people, a viable PC replacement.

So, if a Linux distro is to play in this game, it will need the apps. For that, it will need developers. Plenty of devs are well-disposed towards Linux, so that's a start, but they will need convincing that a mobile Linux platform other than Android is worth addressing in earnest.

For that reason, if PC manufacturers really are considering a post-Windows future, they will need to take action together. There are options, but the industry would really need to pick one and run with it, if it were to create a viable alternative to Windows, iOS and Android.

This sort of collaboration has not worked before, certainly when it was tried in the mobile industry (then again, those debacles were driven by the interests of operators, rather than manufacturers). Could it work now? Unlikely, but not impossible.


The tablet market is still getting established, but that won't be the case much longer. Consumers will soon make their choice and stick with it — Linux can't be too late.

On the evidence so far, Apple is the most likely platform to supersede Windows if tablets really do take over from laptops. But then again, Apple was never going to be a partner to the likes of Acer.

Meanwhile, both Google and Microsoft are trying to simultaneously be competitors and partners to the manufacturers — that's a horribly precarious position to be in, if you're a manufacturer, and it discourages relying too much on either Android or Windows RT.

And that is the lesson of platform politics: the company behind the platform will always tighten up its control at some point. No commercial platform vendor is a reliable partner. The only possible way out is a community effort that is broad enough to succeed.

If they are to survive this very tumultuous phase of the computing game, manufacturers need to learn that lesson, and they need to learn it now.

Topics: Windows, Linux, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Tablets

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • No

    "Is it time for PC manufacturers to reconsider Linux?"


    Next, the author of this article will tell us that 2013 will be "the year of the Linux desktop".

    It's become a running joke, except of course among Linux fanboys, particularly those who are also Mac fanboys, who take themselves so seriously they fail to see the funny side.
    Tim Acheson
    • Really? No.

      I must admit I skimmed through you article as the basis for it is just silly. Have you used a Linux Distribution lately? It does have some caveats worth exploring but simply it does not function like a Windows OS. Also, the applications that most people would use are Windows based, which WINE can handle, but it is not perfect and can make completing the most simple tasks take more steps. Installing drivers and software is completely different. You basically rewrote an article that I have seen for years accept you applied it to tablets. Also, this Post-PC era does not exist as the functionality of PCs is now being built into tablets (microsoft) so people can do real work. There will always be need for a fully functional PC whether it be a Desktop, Notebook, or full featured tablet. These silly articles are seriously making me consider the quality of tech journalism being represented today.
      Tyler Clancy
      • Seriously!?

        "It does have some caveats worth exploring but simply it does not function like a Windows OS" - Linux is not Windows (same applies if you expect Mac OS X to function like windows).

        "lso, the applications that most people would use are Windows based" - Seriously? Have you really used a GNU/Linux distribution lately? I am using all three operating systems and GNU/Linux for all my personal uses. I have no single Windows software running in it (through Wine or otherwise). I am a software developer btw.

        but it is not perfect and can make completing the most simple tasks take more steps" All the best with Metro Interface and Windows 8.
      • Totally Agree

        I agree! Additionally, if Acer is even thinking about jumping ship it would show what a foolish corporate decision that would be! Just because Microsoft is building an Arm and X86 tablet??? There is so much opportunity to make big money if you build a great tablet, laptop or PC! Acer needs to get over it and man up. They need to worry more about the drop in quality of their products than about Microsoft building a tablet. As was said earlier, Acer does not seem to have a problem with building Android tablets and competing against Google!
    • Have to agree with "No"...

      I think the door has been opened so many times the flys are actually coming in.
  • Hardware with Linux? Maybe...

    An Ubuntu tablet? May happen, will not succeed.

    A Ubuntu desktop PC? May happen, will not succeed.

    The only hope for Linux is something like LXDE which resembles Windows 7. If you're going to jump off the Windows ship, you better have something in its place that resembles Windows.

    To me, there is a feeling of sour grapes; a software company, Microsoft, makes a better design for a tablet than the guys who are in the hardware business. That's what's really going on because Microsoft can not make a killing with the Surface if it is only sold online and through their stores. Therefore, ACER, ASUS, HP, DELL, and the rest of them do not have to feel they are competing with Microsoft to sell hardware.
    Justin M. Salvato
    • Ironically, making it look like windows...

      Ironically, making it look like windows defeats the purpose of Linux. Linux' strength is in its Unix background, not its Windows-like present and future. If I am going to install a version of Linux that is just like Windows, then I should just install Windows.

      I have gone on many anti-M$ rants, especially when that disaster called Vista went live. I tried to work with Linux and learned from it. Linux isn't meant to be dumbed down for the average user. That is what Windows and Macs are for. Linux is for those that are a bit brighter and nerdier than average. It gives much more control of the system, but with more control comes more to learn. (With great power comes great responsibility!) Most people do not want to learn or control or fix, they want to point and click.

      Linux could work for the average user if there is an administrator that sets the system up for them and handles the problems. Most of the less tech minded users I know simply know how to do the few things they do, and as soon as something doesn't work right, they need help. Linux is not for those people unless there is an admin ready to help. Google did a fine job creating the Android OS. The GUI is mostly simple enough while still being flexible enough. Creating a new Linux distro for the masses isn't impossible, but it takes a lot of work and a central body coordinating the effort.

      If Windows 8 is a disaster like Vista, users will not want the next version of Linux, they will want the last version of Windows.
      • Ironically, making it look like windows...

        Your comment was spot on about Linux.
        I'd like to add that there are some really great Nix distros like
        Mint and Robolinux for example that have
        made it incredibly easy for the masses to
        take advantage of Linux' zero virus environment
        and the 5X faster operational speed of Linux kernel.
    • With Windows XP Tablet Edition, Microsoft gave OEMs a chance

      All it got Microsoft was a black-eye for over-priced, under-functioning, tablets. Hardware has come a long way since then and the iPad set the bar pretty high.

      Microsoft cannot afford to wait for OEMs to "get it right" this time around. It must set the standard for a Windows tablet. That is why the Surface came about.
      M Wagner
  • Who betrayed who?

    All the MS OEM partners were feverishy promoting google platform in phone and tablets and Cromebooks. Eg. Samsung/Asus/Acer/Lenovo etc,etc... Times up and now face the wrath of MS

    I am glad that MS has surface and saved a bit of pride.
  • Why did you put android in the same boat as windows?!

    Google has partnered with a random OEM they did not made hardware themselves!
    and if they want, they can make Nexus devices with more than one oem(as i heard they are going to do that) it is very different from what microsoft is doing now!
    • Google b*tch-slapped their own manufacturing

      I find it funny that Google got ASUS to manufacture the Nexus 7, and not their own Motorola division....
      • Not really

        If you weren't so biased in your analysis, you'd know that the Asus Transformer is the Em Effing bomb when it comes to Android. Google is smart enough to see this AND push it from the ones most likely to be able to deliver what people want. I'd take my transformer over a dozen iPads ANY day!!! Everyone that sees it and uses it agrees 100%. I have yet to show it to a single iPad user that doesn't like it and immediately see advantages over the iPad.
      • Motorolla not ready yet... This is not Microsoft you know...

        Well, they may have bitch slapped their own motorolla division but i suspect they're not yet ready, be it manufacturing muscle or proper tooling, to push out the numbers to make the whole effort count.

        This is google afterall, they push things out when they are READY. I think you mistook them for microsoft.
        Antonio Ong
    • And Microsoft partnered with a different "random OEM" to make the Surface.

      Whether you are Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Amazon SOMEONE ELSE is making your hardware for you. Each of these companies have the resources to keep their tablet costs down through high-volume purchases - as long as each of them has a single source. This is where the industry is going. Will OEMs folder over this? Sure.

      Many OEMs fell during the 1980s and many more fell during the 1990's. It's just the cycle of life.
      M Wagner
  • Does the Surface spat open the door for Linux?

    Oh boy, not this stupid question again. Every time Microsoft creates something new someone somewhere has to ask this. I just thought it would be some other over zealous blogger on ZDNet. But to answer your question its a reassuring NO! The worlds biggest linux fanboy has said its dead. I haven't seen any place where linux really fits in. Its not usable on the desktop because of security issues, a lack of quality applications, and constant updates which require code compiling. Its not usable on tablets since those have limited use anyway and linux wouldn't fully support the hardware.

    Acer has no choice but to play nice with Microsoft or risk shutting down their business. All of their hardware has been crap for over 10 years. It was Microsoft that had to show them how to properly build good hardware. Acer can try linux if they want but I'll be here laughing at both when they fail.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • The Cat Came Back

      The question arises because people wonder just how unassailable a network effect is. This time, we are seeing mobile computing where Microsoft was a player and then lost its primacy. We are seeing Microsoft suggest it wants to skim off the profits from its partners by taking the Apple model of focusing on high profit sectors. The conundrum of the hardware maker being lead in a software platform has been done before with Nokia/Symbian and the following happened: the other manufacturers didn't trust that the best code was available to them and at Nokia engineering resources were husbanded as managers asked why should they spend money to make competitors' products better.

      We expect the manufacturers will try things in response to Surface. Maybe it is leave the business. Maybe it's to utilize other operating systems.

      More likely, wave Linux at Microsoft - as they did last decade with netbooks - and see if they can get price cuts or subsidies - as they did last decade with netbooks.

      Working against Acer's threat/bluff is his company's performance, Microsoft can't build a 250 million units per year global supply chain, manufacturing, and sales channel in a few months, and we don't know if Microsoft will price these things to be profitable or, like Google's recent Nexus 7, to sell. Pricing them for profit leaves an opening for manufacturers who have already built high volume capacities and can build lower cost devices through economies of scale. Working for Acer is that more people daily are getting things done without Microsoft's assistance.

      The question returns because the personal computer has been transforming from a data processing device to networked communication node. As the nature of applications used broadens, the possibility that more customers could do fine with Linux increases. At which point, the network effect degrades, leaving inertia which can be undercut by low-cost disruptions.

      Processors are cheap: one could easily have a Windows laptop, an Android phone, and an Apple iPad and still pay less and have more computing and communications than the best pc of 2000, even before allowing for inflation.

      I don't predict years of the Linux desktops. But, the computing business is rapidly becoming post-desktop.
    • Acer's goal

      Acer will produce a $399 tablet made with all plastic, and then load it down with "empowering technology" crapware and then complain that Microsoft is eating their lunch. Acer will buy up yet another defunct PC company brand (oh, I dunno, let's say Tandy this time), and will continue to shave off decimal points from their sub-3% profit margins to make up for the purchase of yet another brand that nobody wants anymore.
      • All of the traditional Windows OEMs are in the same boat.

        Enterprise customers buy high-end products in high-volumes for steep discounts and use profits to subsidize consumer-grade low-end products. This serves everyone well but low-volume consumer-only OEMs struggle. Many die or are bought out so the OEM buyer can try to increase its volumes. Size is no guarantee of success either. HP bought up Compaq and is now the largest Windows retailer in the world - but the quality of their products and their customer service leaves a lot to be desired.
        M Wagner
    • Windoze Fanboyz on the Surface

      Windows has been a consumer night mare since its inception. The desktop version has always suffered from continual viral infections, breaches of security, and almost constant concern for privacy risks. Not to mention the famous BSOD, mysterious freezing, unnatural slow-downs, and the required re-boots to just keep it working.

      The Surface promises to be not much of an improvement. Microsoft hopes to compete with Apple by aping its hardware/software model and having complete control of the entire device manufacturing. However, it is quite clear that it's going to be an Apple vs Android race all the way through. Very good choices for consumers- Suface, not so much.