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Arise Netbook!: What’s driving Linux?

I remember making fun of a friend of mine because he insisted on using Linux to run his desktop computer. It was 2003 and all I knew about the Linux operating system was that it seemed overly complicated, ugly and archaic compared to the familiar interface of my Windows XP. And that its mascot was a penguin. Now every time I open my browser I’m bombarded with mention of Linux—it’s everywhere. Which begs the questions: Why now? Why Linux?

Ubuntu:

The name of this Linux distribution translates as “humanity towards others.” Initially released in 2004 by Canonical Ltd. and the Ubuntu Foundation, the focus of Ubuntu was usability, accessibility and internationalization. The first publicly released version of the operating system, version 4.10 or Warty Warthog, was functional, but not exactly pretty. New versions of the operating system have come out twice every year since Warty’s release and are always named after some sort of animal.

Most credit Ubuntu 7.10 or Gutsy Gibbon, released in 2007, with the operating system’s real take off. Sleek, integrated and user-friendly, Gibbon polished Ubuntu for the average desktop adopting many of the conventions that have made the Mac operating systems so successful—good graphics, good fonts and an intuitive interface.

Most important to the rising popularity of this distribution is the fact that the system requirements it needs to run are minimal. On a laptop or desktop the newest version of Ubuntu, Jaunty Jackalope, requires a 300MHz processor, 256MB of RAM, and a 4GB hard drive capacity. New versions of the established operating systems require quite a bit more from hardware: Windows 7 requires a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM; Mac Snow Leopard needs an 867 MHz processor, 1GB of RAM. (These are the bare minimums you need to run the software. If you want to run them without lag, you’ll need faster systems than that) A better system can never hurt but Gibbon and its successors can run on the bare minimum.

What has that got to do with anything, you ask? Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are getting praise everyday for being bigger and better. Why is the little guy packing such a punch?

The Netbook:

Netbooks made their début around the same time gibbons were getting gutsy. Gaining popularity in 2007, these tiny computers—also referred to as mini-notebooks or subnotebooks—were conceived to be low-weight, low-cost and portable. They catered to people who wanted to wander around town using the increasingly ubiquitous Wi-Fi to hop on the Internet at a café or use simple word processing software to take notes in classes or meetings. They were designed to be companion devices to the computers and laptops that people already owned.

The downside: netbooks typically come with 7-10 inch screens, the RAM can vary anywhere from 1GB down to 256 MB, and the price tends to go up with the processing speed.

As of January 2009, 90 per cent of the netbooks shipped came equipped with the Windows operating system but some of the most popular netbooks—Dell Inspiron Mini 10v, Toshiba NB100, Acer Aspire One, ASUS Eee PC—give the buyer the choice of a Linux operating system.

Linux’s key strength is its ability to adapt. New versions of Ubuntu come out every six or so months and the developers at Canonical haven’t been ignoring the netbook invasion. Ubuntu now offers Netbook Remix, specifically designed to function more efficiently on the smaller netbook screens and to better utilize the Intel Atom processor found in the top selling brands Acer and ASUS—as well as others. Canonical actually worked with Intel while creating its software with the aim of supporting the chip (and to gain favour with Intel and the netbook manufacturers, no doubt).

Linux’s connection with netbooks has rocketed it into visibility.

The Economy:

Needless to say, with the economy in the state it’s in, many people are opting to economize. So what do you do when you can’t afford a laptop but can’t take your desktop with you? You buy a netbook. And people have been buying them in droves. In 2008 14.6 million netbooks were shipped. So far in 2009, the shipments of netbooks have gone up by 40 per cent.

The tiny computers can go for as little as $99 USD (though this usually entails signing up for some sort of data plan) but usually cost between $300 and $700 USD. As mentioned earlier, as the quality of the netbook you’re buying goes up, so does the price.

The less expensive models usually come with slower processors and less RAM, conditions that make Linux an ideal operating system.

As people choose the more affordable options like the cheaper netbooks, technology that’s not great but good enough to get the job done, larger swaths of the population are being exposed to Linux software, and the operating system gains in popularity.

The Ubuntu distribution and all of the software associated with Linux are also completely free for anyone who wants to download them, making a Linux-based system ideal for someone who wants to upgrade, but can’t afford licensed products, or someone who just wants to keep their older, slower system running instead of buying a new one.

The Community:

The open source community is probably the most consistent factor in the rise of Linux. Competing with business tools such as Windows Sharepoint server, the programmers and promoters of Linux-based software are vigilant in fixing and improving the products they create quickly. Allowing users to change and create software also allows Linux to respond to the rapid technological changes we face today. This gives Linux products a versatility that some of their competitors lack— Linux has adapted to almost all of the hardware we’ve thrown at it: netbooks, phones, GPSes. The open source community has a mission, a direction and will support the open source alternative, even if the established licensed software holds an advantage. This support allowed Linux to flourish in relative public obscurity for years, and has helped it emerge now as a powerful competitor.

Despite Linux/Unix server options losing market share to Microsoft server products, their desktop software is continuously gaining ground.

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