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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Netbooks and operating systems

by Naman Pugalia.

Recently, this blog (1,2) discussed the netbook revolution.

My experience with the Eee PC

I purchased the Asus Eee PC and upgraded the RAM. This allowed me to run 2 operating systems, as I was originally wary about working with Linux only. In the event, I used Windows once : to install Ubuntu. I thought it would be a travel gadget, but I have used it as my primary machine for 3 months now.

Weighing 2.2 kilograms, it is lighter than most books and with a 4 hour battery life, it is made for the on-the-go user. The built-in mic, speakers and camera work well with chat programs like Skype. The 7-inch screen is a fine compromise between a smartphone (in fact, Dell is banking on netbooks and not smartphones to ride the 3G wave) and a laptop. The lack of a CD/DVD drive does not bother me as I use flash drives for backup, and software for Ubuntu is easily installed over the network so reading CDs or DVDs isn't required.

OpenOffice, the open source competitor to Microsoft's office suite, runs smoothly and recognizes most formats used by Windows users, thus giving inter-operability with others. The pre-installed Transmission BitTorrent Client, GIMP Image Editor and VLC Media Player fulfill other basic needs. The Eeebuntu forum and the Eeeuser forum offer elaborate tech support.

Larger implications of what is going on

Netbooks are important for India as they can revolutionize the way the economy works due to the mobile-phone-like multiplier effects. Barring Apple, most manufacturers have released such a smaller, lighter and cheaper laptop. Considering the critical mass this product category has acquired, Apple is probably working on a prototype. Most netbooks come with a low cost CPU such as the Intel Atom processor, designed specifically for this new breed of notebooks.

Netbooks are a new battleground for operating systems. Given the open source code, and long experience in coping with underpowered hardware, the Linux kernel has easily adapted to netbook conditions. Linux usability is assisted by the availability of free applications software such as Firefox (a web browser), Thunderbird (an email program), Openoffice (a word processor, spreadsheet, etc) and programs that play music and video. The Taiwanese hardware vendors such as Asus, who are some of the top sellers of netbooks, have got closely involved with Linux device drivers and distributions in ensuring that their netbooks work well with Linux.

Microsoft's Windows 7, expected to ship later this year, will come with a Starter Edition which will be light enough to run on netbooks. It will permit the user to run a maximum of three applications at once. Users will have to choose between this, and a Linux environment where there are no artificial constraints.

In rich countries, netbooks are used as secondary gadgets which help in executing basic tasks such as e-mailing, browsing and blogging. Many users in low income markets will, in contrast, embrace netbooks as a primary computing device. Therefore, a light OS with free software is more likely to succeed in emerging markets characterized by customers with small budgets. For the price sensitive Indian consumer, Ubuntu Linux is a natural choice for an OS for a netbook.

Looking into the future, there are two interesting dimensions to what is taking place with netbooks. For Microsoft, the price points that Windows 7 can support are limited by (a) The low price of netbooks and (b) The availability of a credible competitor at a price of zero. This will force Microsoft to fundamentally modify its business model.

The second interesting dimension is the new embrace, by hardware vendors, of Unix (i.e., OS X and Linux family including Google's `Android'). Whether it is Ubuntu Linux, Google's `Android', or other Linux variants, the Taiwanese / Japanese / Korean producers of netbooks and mobile phones are now much more tuned towards finding ways to put flexible and free operating systems on their hardware while enjoying healthier profit margins. This will have many interesting long-term implications for the future of computer devices and hardware.


  1. Ajay has been a strong proponent of netbooks for India. In reading his posts and yours, I wonder if we aren't conflating two distinct properties of netbooks – small and cheap. From what we seek in India – deeper penetration of computers – “small” is no good, unless it in fact is the cause of “cheap”. A small keyboard and screen, in fact will prove to be a hindrance to adoption if this is going to be the first computer for people.

    My question therefore is – what does it take to produce a really cheap fully loaded computer? A smaller screen reduces the price somewhat but that hasn't prevented desktops from generally being cheaper than laptops.

    I think the answer might entirely be about open source and very little about netbooks. Open source software is now finally ready for a non-technical user. It is easy enough to install, use, get help on (this one needs work) and update. There is now a critical mass of open source user software available on Linux – you mention most of them in your post – that the user doesn't have to make compromises. Plus with so much available on the internet like Google Docs, you really won't miss proprietary software.

    The other very important characteristic of open source is that it uses far less computing resources than does Windows. A cheaper processor (like in the netbook) can knock down the price of the computer significantly. I recently took out two old PCs that had to be mothballed because they wouldn't run XP anymore and installed Ubuntu on them. They run faster and better under Ubuntu than they ever did under XP.

    What is needed in India is a business model which commoditizes the hardware, combines it with open source software and a service model that takes away any remaining hesitation on the part of the user (business or consumer) to migrate to open source.

  2. In India there will be few, if any, reasons to resist the adoption of a netbook as there is little to unlearn (or overwrite) for a first time user. If you and I can move away from our 15-inch laptops to a 7-inch alternative, a novice will happily embrace a netbook as a first computing device. Apart from the cost factor, the same logic explains why Linux (Ubuntu) can do well in India.

    The proliferation of open source software will certainly lead to even cheaper machines as high profit margins (a result of free operating systems) are unsustainable. Resultantly, low cost hardware manufacturers will be the long term beneficiaries.

    You are right about the need for a newer business model for India. I see a significant first-mover advantage for a vendor who is bold enough to offer netbooks, pre-loaded with open source software. In fact, the netbook-Linux combination is a perfect reason to promote computer literacy just as Maruti offered driving tutorials with their 800 model, so the service model addendum is necessary.

  3. Interesting article. Recently I bought an Acer Aspire One for around 18500 in Mumbai. It is a nice netbook. One shortcoming is that we could not get the desired color. What is the point of advertising so many colors?
    My question is how much does this Asus Netbook cost in India if possible specifically in Mumbai? How good is their after sales service?
    Best regards, Yps

  4. Interesting article.
    however, for first time users MOBILITY doe snot matter in their learning experience.
    They can get a better '' hands on exp'' for 18500 if they go for a desktop for the same cost.
    Nowadays, with open source, it is not difficult ot get a 17" monitor and a working system for a first time user.

    So what exactly does the netbook bring? IF it cost fall to below 10000 for 7" netbooks, it may become a factor.

    Ajay, pls ontinue the netbook series. thanks.

  5. very funny comments and posts here.


    TRUTH : INTERNET CONNECTION COSTS RS 1000 / month and that aint cheap.

  6. Yps,

    Asus netbooks cost anywhere between INR 11,400 and 28,000 depending on the specifications. You may want to check this link:
    Select 'Asus' under Brands.

    I would also recommend filling this form to get more information:

    I purchased my netbook in the States and have frequently used the Eeebuntu and Eeeuser forums for troubleshooting. Therefore, I cannot comment on the nature of their after sales service.

    Hope this helps.

  7. The netbook phenomenon will pass India by, because of three reasons.

    1. At $300 it will cost Rs 20,000 here. At Rs 15,000 onwards one gets a new desktop. So there will be no conversion from the desktop market.

    2. There is a small but growing laptop market, but it is mostly high end. Starting from Rs 25,000 - 30,000 you can get lower end laptops.

    3. Netbooks depend heavily on a network connection to survive. Here there are not many Wi-Fi points available. Also broadband is generally download limited and people avoid big downloads.

  8. My perception of the netbook product category is that it attracts primarily the experienced laptop user who has already learned how to live life on a laptop and now wants to move to a lighter device, in exchange for a few less features.

    All netbook recommendations that I've seen or heard are from this category of users.

    On the other hand, all the first-time computer buyers I encounter are buying either full-featured laptops (a Dell Inspiron 1525 with a 15.4" screen for less than Rs.40,000 by my next door neighbour) or desktops. Remember, a lot of first-time computer buyers are very scared of portable computers... they fear physical damage.

    Unlike what we tend to believe, the average urban first-time buyer does not seem to mind spending the extra Rs.12-15K for a "better" computer. (I've often found that the cost-conscious middle-class will skimp and save on expenses but will push their budget when investing in capital investments, e.g. laptops, cars.)

    So I feel that netbooks in India will become popular with the following:

    * experienced laptop users looking for a smaller, cheaper, lighter device, sort of like a second car

    * special purpose rural or educational segment users who are on extremely tight budgets

    * companies giving laptops to their field force and looking for the lowest cost option which provides the basic features needed

    It's in fact a bit strange to talk about how cheap netbooks are because low-priced laptops are available for perhaps 30-40% higher price. Price is not the most important reason why most city folks buy netbooks, IMHO.

  9. Shuvam,

    Here's my analogy. We're sitting around in 2000, at the early stages of the mobile phone revolution. Mobile phone prices have just crashed. We're thinking what might come next. You're saying: "I think the pioneering buyers of cheap mobile phones will be upperclass folk in India who have already experienced phones at home or high-priced mobile phones". If you'd said this, you'd be 100% wrong.

    I suspect netbooks are going to evolve into something like mobile phones. Just like we get surprised today when a rickshaw-wallah talks into a mobile phone, we will get surprised when a plumber comes into our house and we see him pull out a netbook and use the built-in 3G broadband.

    My personal view for the pricepoint at which revolutionary things start happening is: Rs.10k for a netbook with 3G built in. Recall that when mobile phones were nudging Rs.10k, Reliance starting giving out the handset free in return for a subscription. Perhaps mobile phone companies in India will give out a free netbook with a 3G subscription. Imagine what that will do.

    In short, I'm cautiously optimistic that something revolutionary is brewing. Rs.10k for a netbook with 3G changes everything.

  10. Ajay,

    I'll agree, provided two things happen:

    * the price drops to the level where they are actually 25% of, not 25% lower than, low-end laptops. (I like your benchmark figure of Rs.10K.)

    * some service providing industry vertical sees recurring revenue from the netbook user big enough to offer the hardware at steeply subsidised prices. In fact this point will probably drive the earlier one.

    I don't see these happening in the near future. I don't know of this happening abroad either.

    I think we from the more affluent and educated strata fail to realise that really widespread purchases of netbooks will be driven by a killer app, and this killer app is not email/Internet access for anyone other than people like us. For voice telephony, there was that huge unfilled demand simply sitting there, waiting for the right prices.

    For netbooks, the issue is not just prices, IMHO. Really large demand surges for computers will require the bridging of the vernac-UI divide, for instance.

  11. Ajay,

    "OpenOffice, the open source version of Microsoft's office suite..."

    should be

    "OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft's office suite..."

  12. Ghane,

    The post is by Naman and not by me! :-)

  13. Hi All,
    I used Ubuntu. However, Ms Office is much better than Open Office. Some functionalities of Open Office are really cumbersome.

    Netbooks will work only in Linux is installed and Linux will be famous only if it comes out with a viable alternative atleast as good as Ms Office.

    Moreover, even the best of Linux distros still have bugs. Ms is much more stable inspite of the viruses.

    We need to innovate a lot and make better open source software or else the Rs 10,000 netbook will just remain a dream, it will not be able to gain entry into the masses.

  14. This link seems to be the first piece of news of an ISP doing what Ajay had mentioned about subsidised netbooks:

  15. Thi8s news item may be the first case we know of an ISP doing what Ajay had said, about subsidised netbooks with broadband connections.

    AT&T is offering a normally-$500 netbook at $99, provided you commit to a two-year subscription of their 3G broadband service whose charges are $60 a month.

  16. Netbook will go strong for this year because laptops are heavy and probably the cause of backaches. I prefer to get a netbook and I don't worry about internet connection because there is plenty of free hotspots around my city

  17. Interesting article. Recently I bought an Acer Aspire. It is a nice netbook. One shortcoming is that we could not get the desired color.

  18. Why would anybody buy a netbook? Did they do any research on why people buy netbooks?
    I doubt that so many people want to carry their netbooks on a daily basis and they really care about couple of inches of size and couple of pounds of weight.
    I think people who buy netbooks care only about price and and this new definition "Netbook" makes it socially appropriate to buy a crappy computer - "It is not just a cheap and crappy notebook, it's netbook, it's just happened to be cheap (pure coincidence)"

  19. Thanks for sharing these info with us! I was reading something similar on another website that i was researching. I will be sure to look around more. thanks…


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