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Mobile is the New Desktop

The perfect storm for Linux in the netbook market.

There’s not much good news coming out of the tech industry these days. Whether it’s Steve Job’s leave of absence from Apple, Intel closing plants and laying off employees due to a global slowdown in PC sales or the first layoffs in Microsoft’s history1, the tech industry is experiencing pain at nearly every level.

That said, it’s possible to find at least one segment of the industry that didn’t go completely in the tank last year. According to the New York Times:

The only bright spot in the PC industry is netbooks. Analysts at the Gartner research company said shipments rose to 4.4 million devices in the third quarter of 2008, from 500,000 units in the first quarter of last year. Analysts say sales could double this year despite a deep worldwide recession.

All of those devices have to run some kind of operating system and one would think that Linux would be an easy choice for netbook manufacturers.

If you’re selling a piece of hardware that tops out at around $200 then you’re not going to want to add another $200 in Microsoft licensing fees. MS knows this and, on the one hand, has cut way back on the amount it charges OEMs for the netbook-version of Windows, while, on the other, going so far as to attributing some of the falloff in the company’s business last quarter to portable devices.

As painful as the recent economic downturn has been, the situation is rapidly developing into a perfect storm for Linux in the ultra-portable and mobile device market. The fact that consumers are cutting back and are willing to sacrifice some power in hardware in exchange for portability (something of a 180 from a year or so ago) coupled with an environment where Windows isn’t completely entrenched makes for a huge opportunity for Linux the short term. And possibly the long term as well:

“Companies like Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments that make chips for these devices are hiring Linux talent as quick as they can,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the nonprofit Linux Foundation. “They know the future is netbooks and mobile Internet devices.”

1 We recently speculated on the long term implications of MS’s software development model.

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