Less than an OS, less than free

Less than an OS, less than free

Summary: What's an OS for? Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, Google has spent most of the time it probably wanted to be talking about Chrome discussing the value of paid content on the Web; but that's actually an awful lot of what Chrome is really for.

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TOPICS: Windows
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What's an OS for? Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, Google has spent most of the time it probably wanted to be talking about Chrome discussing the value of paid content on the Web; but that's actually an awful lot of what Chrome is really for. It's a big fancy browser on custom-built hardware, which is another answer to the question I asked Google's VP of engineering (and ex-Microsoft general manager in charge of evangelising Windows as a platform) Vic Gundotra at the Google IO developer conference this year: when Google does its own OS, how will it deal with drivers and peripherals? Do what Apple does and lock down the hardware so you have hardly any drivers to worry about and stick a Web server in everything else so you can use inefficient but ubiquitous Web protocols instead.

At the time he told me the question was at least 14 years old (which makes me think we really should have a good answer by now), quoted Marc Andreesson in his Netscape days, saying he thought Windows would become nothing more than a set of poorly debugged device drivers and then challenged the assumption that "peripherals will always require native device drivers". He has a digital photo frame that he logs into on the Web, and one of the smart power meters Google is working on (power consumption is indexable data that Google can aggregate and extract value from just like Web sites); "even with peripherals," he told me, "their connectivity to the Internet is where their value derives." I'm not certain about that; with the speed of our DSL, I'd rather have my photos go onto a photo frame from our network drive than from Flickr - but it would certainly be easier to read our electric meter over the Internet while we're away. So does that mean you can wave aside the driver question after 14 years? Only if you want your devices to cost more.

You have to have smarts at one end of the connection; if they're not in the OS, they have to be in the peripheral. You can't have thin client at both ends. Every peripheral that you can't treat as external storage (cameras, media players) is going to have to have an embedded OS of its own to run the Web server for the driver-less OS to talk to. Smarter devices can go online and sync to the driver-less OS as peers - perhaps through a Google service? The rest of the ecosystem can do a little more work, and Google can do a lot less.

Talking of who's doing the work, I've seen some speculation about whether hardware OEMs will want to make low-end Chrome notebooks. (Google calls them 'slightly bigger than a netbook'; so just call it a notebook! They may have SSDs instead of hard drives; so does the ThinkPad we're toting and it's a notebook.) Certainly, the success of netbooks took the shine off Dell's profits this year and PC makers have been quick to push 10 and 11" netbooks with graphics acceleration like Ion and usable keyboards instead of 7" margin killers. With no premium hardware, would getting the OS for free be enough to tempt them back after the way Linux netbooks came flooding back as returns? How about less than free?

Remember that while Chrome OS will be open source, it will be open source in the same way Android is; the apps like Google Maps, with its turn-by-turn directions aren't. Google controls those and makes enough money from them that it can offer a share of ad revenue to manufacturers; if HP made a Chrome OS device, they'd make money on all your searches. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley nailed this when he christened it "less than free". To compete, other OS manufacturers would have to not only drop their licence fee but pay the hardware manufacturer. The followup question is how much of that a company with a seven to one share of the search market (compared to Bing) can do without incurring an anti-trust investigation. -Mary

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Less than an OS, less than free

    Your article states:

    <i>would getting the OS for free be enough to tempt them back after the way Linux netbooks came flooding back as returns?</i>

    Do you have some valid proof of this unsubstantiated statement, or are you just regurgitating something that you heard or read somewhere once, because it serves the purposes of the Windows-centric world to keep repeating it until it is accepted as fact regardless of validity?

    jw
    j.a.watson@...
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    Why yes. I've been told by more than one PC manufacturer, although with the request not to name them, that they had far higher returns on Linux netbooks. I've had others tell me on the record that Linux simply wasn't popular with their customers, and that the Linux models, though cheaper, didn't sell as well. Plus there is the evidence of commercial reality; if Linux netbooks had been popular, would OEMs have switched to selling the majority of their netbook offerings with Windows when they have to pay a licence fee for it? Cynically speaking, I think the reason all the EEE PCs always come with a Windows driver CD, whatever the OS supplied, is that they expect enough users to buy a Linux model and put their own copy of Windows on it (legally or not) to make the cost of cutting the discs less than the cost of dealing with returns: that one is, naturally, utter and unsubstantiated speculation.

    For the mass market, Linux - apart from the Mac OS X version - is a very long way from being ready for primetime. Take for instance the Ubuntu netbook remix used on many models; it had a bug that meant it couldn't connect to a password-protected fileshare. Or the Linpus distro that went out without an SMB browser at all (and even after you wrestled it into advanced mode and installed SMB it still couldn't handle connecting to a (Linux-based) NAS box. In my experience, the vast majority of consumers do still want Windows apps; they want Corel and Quicken and Office and Roxio and the other tools they're familiar with, and businesses want apps they don't have to retrain users on. Maybe that will change. Maybe OpenOffice.org will do more than imitate Office of five years ago and Linux will become truly user friendly. But today, for most users, it's Windows - or Mac. Notice how many notebooks come with Splashtop or another Linux quick-start environment that can run Firefox and Skype and a few other app-like things - and how few people use that instead of booting into Windows? (It doesn't help that without the power management of Windows, these environments tend to take more battery power, not less - and yes, that's something I have the figures for too).

    But do you have any evidence to the contrary? If you've seen lower returns figures for Linux netbooks than for Windows models, could you share them?
    M
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    All right, first, my comment on your article related to the unsubstantiated statement about "Linux netbooks came flooding back as returns". That has nothing to do with whether Windows is more popular than Linux on netbooks, or any possible reasons that might be the case. Of course, if you can't substantiate a blanket statement, it is always a good strategy to change the subject.

    Second, if you think there is any relationship between Linux and MacOS X, there is no point in continuing this conversation because one of us doesn't know what we are talking about.

    Third, I have personally been told by the CEO of every netbook manufacturer on the entire planet that returns of Linux netbooks have been running at about 10.736% of the return rate of Windows notebooks, but unfortunately they also requested that I not name them. Drat. I guess my "anonymous information" is every bit as valid as is yours. Nice try, though.

    Fourth, and most importantly, some direct quotes and relevant information:

    - <a href="http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/12/dell_reality_linux_windows_netbooks/">The Register</a> published this quote from Open Source World in August 2009:

    <i>Todd Finch, Dell senior product marketing manager, said the number of Linux returns are approximately the same as those for Windows netbooks. He categorized the matter of returns as a "non-issue". "They are making something of nothing," he said of Microsoft's claims.</i>

    - In an October 2008 interview with <a href="http://blog.laptopmag.com/asus-ceo-reveals-eee-pc-sales-numbers-plans-for-touch-eee-pcs-and-more-eee-family-products">Laptop Magazine</a>, the ASUS CEO was asked specifically about Linux/Windows return rates, and said this:

    <i>I think the return rate for the Eee PCs are low but I believe the Linux and Windows have similar return rates.</i>

    Ok, but what about the numerous claims that return rates are higher? Well, I found one totally unsubstantiated statement from the Microsoft "Chief Operating Officer" that Linux netbook returns were "like four or five times higher than Windows". No proof. No attribution. No numbers. Honestly, I don't believe a single word that comes out of the mouth of anyone at Microsoft, period. They could tell me that today is Wednesday, and I wouldn't believe it until I checked the calendar. One thing they could say which I might find marginally interesting is the return rate on Vista netbooks, but I am under no delusions that they will ever do that, because the word Vista never passes the lips of anyone from Microsoft.

    The only other documented reference to this that I could find was the quote from MIS's Director of U.S. Sales in October 2008 that Linux netbooks were being returned at a rate 4 times higher than Windows netbooks. That sounds pretty convincing, until you find out that when he made that statement, MSI was not even shipping their first Linux-based system, and like everyone else making these statements, he provides no information about where he got that number.

    So I say again, if anyone has any clear, concrete proof that netbooks loaded with Linux are, were or will be returned at a significantly higher rate than netbooks loaded with Windows, I would love to see it. I believe that this is nothing more than FUD originally sewn by Microsoft, and since then repeated, blindly, as gospel truth, by various uninformed industry executives, "pundits" and journalists, such as yourself. This is the way Microsoft works. If you state something as "fact", and repeat it often enough, and get your minions to repeat it, even without any proof, it will eventually be generally accepted as "fact".

    The real "scandal" in the netbook market was Microsoft forcing manufacturers to use Windows Vista. Even after it was obvious that Vista was a stinking pile of garbage on typical netbook hardware (the primary problems were the Atom CPU and 945/950 graphics), very little was written about it. I personally own three netbooks which came with Vista: an HP 2133 Mini-Note, which was loaded with Vista Buisiness and included an XP Professional "downgrade" DVD; I literally couldn't get it to boot Vista to a stable, usable state, so I ended up trashing Vista and loading XP (but of course Microsoft booked it as a Vista sale). An ASUS N10J that came preloaded with Vista Business and an XP Pro "downgrade" DVD. It will at least boot Vista, but it is so slow and prone to hanging, "White Window of Death" syndrome and various other instability that I only boot that partition when I need to look at something to help someone else. An HP Pavillion dv2-1010ez that came preloaded with Vista Home Premium, and is actually the most "usable" of the three, but then it has an AMD Athlon Neo CPU and Radeon HD graphics, so it doesn't really fit in the classic "netbook" category. Oh, and in addition, when I let it try to install Vista SP2, it thrashes around for a couple of hours and then informs me that the installation failed. Excellent.

    The point is, all three of those netbooks, which came with Vista, "should" have been returned as unusable, but in fact have been "saved" and made very useful by having Linux loaded on them. So while we are bandying about unsubstantiated numbers, let me add one more to the mix. My information, which was given directly to me by "a source who asked not to be named", indicates that 36.82% of netbooks which are purchased with Windows, regardless of whether it was XP, Vista or Vista with Lipstick (Windows 7), have in fact been wiped and reloaded with Linux, and thus should be counted as Windows "returns".

    By the way, the nice term for "information from a source who asked not to be named" is <b>unsubstantiated rumor</b>. There are other more accurate, but less nice, names for it.

    Have a nice day.

    jw 25/11/2009
    j.a.watson@...
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    Note: I have removed the links from this comment, to stop it from triggering the (very irritating) "spam filter". If you want to read the original quoted articles, they are not difficult to find, just do a search on something terribly complex like "linux netbook returns". The real information is out there, if you are interested enough to bother looking for it.

    All right, first, my comment on your article related to the unsubstantiated statement about "Linux netbooks came flooding back as returns". That has nothing to do with whether Windows is more popular than Linux on netbooks, or any possible reasons that might be the case. Of course, if you can't substantiate a blanket statement, it is always a good strategy to change the subject.

    Second, if you think there is any relationship between Linux and MacOS X, there is no point in continuing this conversation because one of us doesn't know what we are talking about.

    Third, I have personally been told by the CEO of every netbook manufacturer on the entire planet that returns of Linux netbooks have been running at about 10.736% of the return rate of Windows notebooks, but unfortunately they also requested that I not name them. Drat. I guess my "anonymous information" is every bit as valid as is yours. Nice try, though.

    Fourth, and most importantly, some direct quotes and relevant information:

    - The Register published this quote from Open Source World in August 2009:

    <i>Todd Finch, Dell senior product marketing manager, said the number of Linux returns are approximately the same as those for Windows netbooks. He categorized the matter of returns as a "non-issue". "They are making something of nothing," he said of Microsoft's claims.</i>

    - In an October 2008 interview with Laptop Magazine, the ASUS CEO was asked specifically about Linux/Windows return rates, and said this:

    <i>I think the return rate for the Eee PCs are low but I believe the Linux and Windows have similar return rates.</i>

    Ok, but what about the numerous claims that return rates are higher? Well, I found one totally unsubstantiated statement from the Microsoft "Chief Operating Officer" that Linux netbook returns were "like four or five times higher than Windows". No proof. No attribution. No numbers. Honestly, I don't believe a single word that comes out of the mouth of anyone at Microsoft, period. They could tell me that today is Wednesday, and I wouldn't believe it until I checked the calendar. One thing they could say which I might find marginally interesting is the return rate on Vista netbooks, but I am under no delusions that they will ever do that, because the word Vista never passes the lips of anyone from Microsoft.

    The only other documented reference to this that I could find was the quote from MIS's Director of U.S. Sales in October 2008 that Linux netbooks were being returned at a rate 4 times higher than Windows netbooks. That sounds pretty convincing, until you find out that when he made that statement, MSI was not even shipping their first Linux-based system, and like everyone else making these statements, he provides no information about where he got that number.

    So I say again, if anyone has any clear, concrete proof that netbooks loaded with Linux are, were or will be returned at a significantly higher rate than netbooks loaded with Windows, I would love to see it. I believe that this is nothing more than FUD originally sewn by Microsoft, and since then repeated, blindly, as gospel truth, by various uninformed industry executives, "pundits" and journalists, such as yourself. This is the way Microsoft works. If you state something as "fact", and repeat it often enough, and get your minions to repeat it, even without any proof, it will eventually be generally accepted as "fact".

    The real "scandal" in the netbook market was Microsoft forcing manufacturers to use Windows Vista. Even after it was obvious that Vista was a stinking pile of garbage on typical netbook hardware (the primary problems were the Atom CPU and 945/950 graphics), very little was written about it. I personally own three netbooks which came with Vista: an HP 2133 Mini-Note, which was loaded with Vista Buisiness and included an XP Professional "downgrade" DVD; I literally couldn't get it to boot Vista to a stable, usable state, so I ended up trashing Vista and loading XP (but of course Microsoft booked it as a Vista sale). An ASUS N10J that came preloaded with Vista Business and an XP Pro "downgrade" DVD. It will at least boot Vista, but it is so slow and prone to hanging, "White Window of Death" syndrome and various other instability that I only boot that partition when I need to look at something to help someone else. An HP Pavillion dv2-1010ez that came preloaded with Vista Home Premium, and is actually the most "usable" of the three, but then it has an AMD Athlon Neo CPU and Radeon HD graphics, so it doesn't really fit in the classic "netbook" category. Oh, and in addition, when I let it try to install Vista SP2, it thrashes around for a couple of hours and then informs me that the installation failed. Excellent.

    The point is, all three of those netbooks, which came with Vista, "should" have been returned as unusable, but in fact have been "saved" and made very useful by having Linux loaded on them. So while we are bandying about unsubstantiated numbers, let me add one more to the mix. My information, which was given directly to me by "a source who asked not to be named", indicates that 36.82% of netbooks which are purchased with Windows, regardless of whether it was XP, Vista or Vista with Lipstick (Windows 7), have in fact been wiped and reloaded with Linux, and thus should be counted as Windows "returns".

    By the way, the nice term for "information from a source who asked not to be named" is <b>unsubstantiated rumor</b>. There are other more accurate, but less nice, names for it.

    Have a nice day.

    jw 25/11/2009
    j.a.watson@...
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    "I have personally been told by the CEO of every netbook manufacturer on the entire planet that returns of Linux netbooks have been running at about 10.736% of the return rate of Windows notebooks,"

    But 10.7% for Linux is far more substantial figure to sustain, than it is for ms given the numbers they ship.
    CA-aba1d
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    Ugh percentage of percentage - statistical nighmare!

    A ships 1000 gets 100 returned - rate is 10%

    B ships 100 gets 10 returned - rate is 10%

    B's rate is the same as A's.

    However, B's return number is 10% of A's return number.

    Altrernatively

    B ships 100 gets 1 returned - rate is 1%

    B's rate is now directly 10% of A's

    And you can carry on playing this game all night!
    Tezzer-5cae2
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    JW, excellent follow-up post, as always ;-)
    conz-fd600
  • Less than an OS, less than free

    The point is Linux community can't afford to be taking them knock backs if they want more hardware venders to ship open source, as opposed to windows.

    Another thing why the hell are people so sensitive about Linux? anytime some one mentions something about it people through a wobbly, that just makes people more inclined to think a nerves being snagged because many truth's hurt.

    lets just remind our self's Inanimate object.
    CA-aba1d