Cheap hardware loves Linux, hurts Microsoft

Redmond is reeling from the rise of cheap, single-purpose hardware, while Linux vendors stand to gain from the same phenomenon.

Microsoft used to bury the cost of Windows in the $1,000-plus price of a new PC. But as personal computers take different and cheaper forms, Microsoft Windows is starting to look a heck of a lot more expensive...and expendable.

I'm a Linux. Did you notice? Amazon
That's the argument ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes makes, and it rings true. Microsoft's earnings have been slipping as the industry resets to Netbooks and other low-cost hardware, which is forcing Microsoft to cut its prices on Windows accordingly.

Microsoft may be "beating" Linux in Netbooks, but it's an ugly, Pyrrhic victory, as Kingsley-Hughes describes:

So, a weaker economy, combined with having to take a cut on how much it gets for every Windows license sold means that Microsoft is being forced to evolve. Problem is, this evolution at present consists of little more than looking under the sofa cushions for loose change that's fallen out of people's pockets, and lashings of wishful thinking.

The cash that Microsoft will get in from rentals of Windows and Office will, at best, be peanuts. And hoping that slates will be seen as "PC companions" rather than desktop replacements is the sort of thinking that requires whole handfuls of four-leaf clovers.

Linux, on the other hand, was made for a market just like this. When cost crowds out other considerations, consumers and businesses may well discover that they really don't need their menus and applications to run exactly like they did in the good old days of Windows XP.

No, I'm not calling for 2010 to be the year of the Linux "desktop," Netbook, or anything else. Kingsley-Hughes rightly ridicules that notion in a separate post.

I don't think there will be a year of Linux dominating personal computers until the industry shifts its fetish from the operating system to the overall device experience. TiVo, Amazon's Kindle, and a growing array of other Linux-based devices suggest that people are already exceptionally happy running Linux...when Linux isn't the focus of their experience.

Microsoft can't abide a world in which its software isn't front and center, from the "Designed for Windows" sticker on the laptop to the boot-up screen. Linux, on the other hand, doesn't mind being invisible.

And that is why Linux may just win as hardware prices turn against Microsoft and device manufacturers look for a willing, robust, invisible partner: one that can do what it's told to do (whether it's to give the consumer a quick trip to the Web or keep to loading book pages) and not insist on taking all the attention...and profits.

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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