Ubuntu, Asus team up on netbooks

Canonical bets on netbooks, but is it the right move?

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Ubuntu backer Canonical earlier this week announced that its Linux operating system would be shipped with at least three of Asus’ EEE PC netbooks.

The three netbooks – the 1001PXD, 1011PX and 1015PX – all ship with Ubuntu 10.10 pre-installed and have 10-inch screens. Two of the netbooks run Intel’s dual-core Atom processor while the third, the 1001PXD, uses a single-core Atom.

The fact that Asus is shipping Linux-based netbooks is not entirely that surprising considering Asus kicked off the netbook revolution with its EEE PC which originally ran a version of Linux. What is interesting is that Asus decided to switch to Ubuntu Linux.

The version of Ubuntu shipped on the new netbook range is a slightly older version of Ubuntu and generally well suited to netbooks. The new release of Ubuntu (version 11.04) is considerably more demanding of resources than Ubuntu 10.10 and generally not viewed as ideal for lower-powered netbooks. Ubuntu 11.10 may well fix that when it is released later this year, but for now Asus is heading down an uncertain path.

The other peculiarity is the focus that Canonical is giving to netbooks. A year ago netbooks were the hot ticket. Since then Apple has hit the netbook market hard with its iPad. With every other hardware maker rolling out their own version of the tablet PC, the future for netbooks looks pretty dismal. Add to that Google’s Chrome OS cloud-based ultra-portables, Android’s rapid rise, and the fact that Asus is also dabbling in MeeGo, and Ubuntu looks likely to be scrambling for a tiny bit of the mobile pie.

Matt Asay, COO of Canonical until recently, is pretty outspoken on this. Asay writes: “In tablets, Linux wunderkind Android is a rising force, but Ubuntu is not yet a credible player. It’s not enough, in other words, to have a fighting chance in netbooks. Even a complete victory would be Pyrrhric. The market has moved on, and the market is voting for those platforms that have the most/best applications, just as was the case with Windows in the PC market for decades.”

Clearly Ubuntu does have the technology and the interest in staking its claim in the mobile world: it has touchscreen-ready technology, it has a mobile interface called Unity which is getting better, and it is part of the Limo Foundation which is focused on developing better mobile Linux technologies. Perhaps the focus on netbooks as the vehicle to improve Ubuntu’s lot is perhaps misplaced.

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