Netbooks are still growing strongly as a category despite the poor economy. Last year, 10 million netbooks shipped globally and that number is expected to double this year. The big draw of a netbook is a low price tag and the small, portable form-factor.
The majority of the netbooks on the market today run Windows. Some of the machine can be had with alternative operating systems based on Linux. Several manufacturers have noted that return rates on netbooks running Linux tend to be higher than returns of Windows-based netbooks.
Dell seems to be one of the few manufacturers not having significantly higher return rates and selling significant numbers of its netbook with Linux installed. Dell says that a full third of the Mini 9 netbooks it sells are running Linux.
The big draw to Linux-based netbooks for manufacturers is that the open source operating system can be free to them and allows them to make higher profit margins while offering a lower cost product. HP has confirmed that it is investigating Google Android as an alternative operating system for its netbooks. Android is a Linux-based operating system that is free for use on devices.
HP points out that it is merely considering the use of Android on its netbooks and is not yet ready to release a product running the Google OS. HP's Marlene Somsak said, "We want to assess the capability it will have for the computing and communications industry. We remain open to considering various OS options."
Some analysts think that it's too early to offer Android on a netbook computer. Analyst Avi Greengart from Current Analysis told Yahoo Tech, "Right now Android is barely finished for phones." Greengart says that while Android works well enough for T-Mobile's G1 smartphone, Android has only been on the market for a year and "the UI still feels half-finished."
HP says that engineers have been assigned to porting Android to its netbooks but no decision has been reached to offer the OS at this point. HP isn’t the only firm looking at the possibility of offering Android on devices other than smartphones. Qualcomm and Freescale plan to add Android compatibility to netbooks running ARM processors.
The biggest problem with a netbook running an alternative OS like Android or Linux to the end user is that it requires learning something new. Many people have been using Windows and applications designed to work on Windows for decades and have no desire to learn something new.
Research manager David Daoud from IDC said, "We've seen a number of netbooks returned as a result of the Linux OS. Consumers are used to the Microsoft Windows world." The rate of adoption for alternative OS' like Linux is particularly low in matured markets like the U.S. and Western Europe according to Daoud. These are also two of the markets where it is very important that the product do well.
Daoud does say that if HP can get Android to run on its netbooks and the machines that they could see popularity in emerging markets like India and China where Linux is more popular. The netbooks could also help vastly expand the Android user base.