Linux Netbooks: What's the Secret Sauce for Sales?
As noted by Dana Blankenhorn in this post, Linux pundit Bill Weinberg is pondering whether Linux will survive as an OS for netbooks. Many of the early netbooks from Asus were Linux-based, and I saw Asus netbooks running Linux this past weekend at my local Target store, but there are still a lot of questions about whether there will be much of a forward-going market for Linux netbooks. Blankenhorn makes the point that the sales channel is a problem: "I tried out some Linux laptops last year and, while there were some glitches they held promise. But when it came time for me to lay down cash, there was no Linux kit on the shelves." Is Microsoft's might in the retail channel too great for Linux netbooks to be successful in the long run?
While Blankenhorn has a point that Linux netbooks could use presence and oomph in retail channels, I think Linux netbooks can succeed without emphasis on that issue. This weekend, when I was at Target, Linux-based Asus netbooks were only $30 cheaper than Windows-based netbooks. The vast majority of buyers are going to pay the extra $30 for the operating system and types of applications that they're used to. No amount of marketing and cheerleading is going to change that down at Target.
I'm much more in agreement with Matt Asay in his post, "Linux netbooks: Hit Microsoft where it ain't," and with Bill Weinberg, that product differentiation--a better product strategy--is the holy grail for Linux netbooks. They should be more compelling and exciting than Windows netbooks, no matter what it takes to make that happen.
Matt points out that Microsoft is weak on the mobile technology front, and that this is an opportunity for product differentiation among Linux netbooks:
"If Linux wants to win in netbooks, and it can, it must do so by undermining Microsoft, not by confronting its desktop dominance directly. Netbooks must be more 'net' than 'book,' just as mobile phones are more about mobile than phone."
Indeed, imbuing Linux netbooks with smarter mobile technology and applications than Windows netbooks offer is an excellent idea. This is why Android-based netbooks may have a fighting chance. The new version 1.5 of Android works with handwriting recognition, geolocation, and many other promising features that could make Android netbooks successful.
There is more promise for Linux netbooks in going down the product improvement path than going down the retail channel improvement path. Makers of Linux netbooks should make the products as exciting and unique as the iPhone was when it arrived. Dell, the number two personal computer manufacturer in the world, grabbed dominant market share for many years by selling direct, entirely outside the retail channel. Dell is even rumored to be working on Android netbooks, which it may want to emphasize direct sales for. Going forward, delivering a better product is what makers of Linux netbooks ought to focus on