Does the Surface spat open the door for Linux?

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?
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

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.

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