Can Ubuntu revive the netbook segment?

Ubuntu may not make the netbook sexy again, but it can certainly make it a more viable choice for student computing with lower long-term costs than other solutions might entail. System76 just happens to be one OEM that makes it easy to jump into Ubuntu (on netbooks and elsewhere).
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Netbooks still matter in education, especially K12. They're cheap (almost to the point of being disposable) and fit well into small hands. They can often last through a school day and generally give students lots of what they need with few of the bells and whistles they don't. With all the talk of tablets, netbooks remain the easiest, cheapest way to get kids connected to the Internet and taking advantage of ubiquitous computer access at home and at school.

That being said, netbooks aren't sexy or inspiring. Give the average teacher a choice between netbooks for his or her students and iPads all around and, chances are, the iPads are going to win out, even if the teacher can't describe the relative merits of either platform. It's not that the iPads are a bad idea for students, by the way. It's simply that there are times when netbooks (or full-sized laptops, for that matter) will lend themselves better to classroom use than iPads. Like when a student needs to type. Or use a Flash application.

I've been thinking a lot about netbooks recently because System76 sent me two of their units to test. System76 only manufactures and sells Ubuntu-based laptops, servers, and desktops, including two netbooks (the Starling Netbook and the Starling Edubook). Neither represents anything especially revolutionary in the netbook space. The Starling Netbook features a dual-core Atom processor and a very nicely textured exterior, but nothing in terms of hardware that can't be found elsewhere. The Edubook is their spin on Intel's Clamshell Classmate.

And yet my youngest son immediately left his Convertible Classmate (the touchscreen, convertible tablet version of Intel's educational netbook reference design) and began using the Edubook. For three weeks, he hasn't touched (no pun intended) the more sophisticated Windows 7-based ruggedized tablet and long after the novelty of one of my usual new test units should have worn off, he's still using the Edubook exclusively.

Why? Because he likes the software better. It's running Ubuntu Netbook Remix (version 10.04 since System76 wasn't convinced that Ubuntu's new Unity UI featured for the first time in Version 10.10 was ready for prime time, especially with their educational customers) and has everything he needs in a computer. It boots quickly, he likes the way the programs are organized, and if there is a game that he wants, then it's only a couple of clicks away. No need to buy anything, no need to ask me for help or a credit card, no searching for dubious downloads. Just a simple interface for adding the programs that he wants. And, of course, Firefox is front and center so he can play Cityville (he took over my account for me) and even do some occasional school work.

Ubuntu, and System76 by their choice in OS, has the power to make netbooks just a little bit cooler and quite a bit more powerful. Obviously Windows-based netbooks have the advantage of running mainstream educational software, but Windows does a miserable job with small screens and the allure of thousands of free applications (from Clonezilla for reimaging machines to LOGO programming tools) is undeniable.

Dell, among other OEMs, is shipping some netbooks with Ubuntu Light, as well, designed to be a dual-boot OS alongside Windows that boots very quickly and is largely designed to simply provide Net access faster than Windows can. That Net access is why these devices were called netbooks in the first place and in a classroom, immediate access to information (or even to Google Docs) is essential. There simply isn't time to waste and the faster kids are online and beginning their assignments, the better.

Ubuntu isn't going to make netbooks suddenly take off again with the explosive growth we saw when they were introduced, nor will it help them replace tablets as the device du jour of every 1:1 implementation. However, System76 makes a compelling case for netbooks (in education and elsewhere) by pre-installing Ubuntu and ensuring that everything "just works" out of the box. For students, the experience is seamless, trouble-free, and largely malware-resistant. For teachers, there is little in the way of software needs that can't be quickly satisfied with utter ease. And for system administrators and bean counters alike, the abundance of free software (both for management and for student learning) is quite compelling from a TCO perspective.

If you're on the fence about netbooks for your students or teachers, Ubuntu might make the platform a more viable choice. System76 should also be on your short list of vendors to evaluate as their netbooks with Ubuntu pre-installed will save you expensive upgrades to Windows 7 Professional on major-OEM netbooks to ensure manageability. Ubuntu, after all, can join a Windows domain. Windows 7 Starter Edition? Not so much.

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