Businesses are not philanthropists. They are not, intentionally, educators or evangelists for ideologies. However, from time to time their business models just happen to coincide with their more idealistic customers own interests. Asus is one such company.
When they launched the little EeePC they could scarcely have imagined the extraordinary reaction it would cause. They say that any publicity is good publicity but the reaction to the two pound wonder was almost universally favourable. It was hot. I mean nuclear hot. And it was GNU/Linux.
The net was humming with praise, enthusiasm and replete with hagiographic articles drooling with admiring screenshots. I was one the EeePC groupies too. An EeePC slut. I liked it so much that, like Victor Kiam, I bought one. Hell, I couldn't contain myself. I joined the drooling throng and penned four articles on this ultra portable laptop computer. The praise was mostly unstinting and the lust for the little machine was positively Gadarene.
Yes, there were niggling reservations: Xandros was the installed default distro of choice--but this company, like Novell, had entered into an agreement with Microsoft and they played silly buggers with the Kernel before a torrent of complaints caused them to release the source code. Then there was the matter of the sanctity of the GPL. In the first flush of enthusiasm it was possible to put a peg on our noses, avert our gaze and wax lyrical about the little beast. The Asus EeePC is one of the few purchases I have made that did not induce the classical post-purchase "buyers' remorse" syndrome. However, all is not mimsy in the borogroves, as Lewis Carroll would say.
Asus at least give the appearance that free software operating systems are being quietly shunted onto the back burner
Window shopping on the digital mall I stumbled across a report about the Computex 2008 show in Japan which reported that the Asus stand was being very coy about advertising GNU/Linux. (Sorry, I can't give you the link. I was in live CD mode at the time, so I emailed the link to myself but it all went pear shaped.) In fact you would have been hard pushed to see any reference to it at all. Windows was a different matter altogether. There was plenty of promotional material suggesting that things go better with Windows on the EeePC. Leaving aside the technical improvements to the latest EeePC models, including the bigger nine inch screen and the Intel "Diamonville" Atom processor, Asus at least give the appearance that free software operating systems are being quietly shunted onto the back burner.
This raises a rather cynical question. Was Asus simply using GNU/Linux as a lure to get a cheap foothold in the micro market and tempt Microsoft by the stunning sales figures? After all, Microsoft has reputedly reprieved Windows XP as it wants to get a share of this lucrative market too and it knows that Vista is having problems running well on conventional laptops and will therefore have problems running well on lower spec'd machines like the EeePC. Well, Asus is a business too and it will partner with whatever operating system shifts most product. They know that the overwhelming majority of private computer users are, by inertia, indifference, and technical and political ignorance, Windows users. That, presumably, is why Asus told Zdnet that sixty percent of all EeePCs shipped in 2008 would come with Windows XP preinstalled; and Microsoft have not been shy in admitting that the purpose is to position itself to "get into the next ten billion consumer market". Of course, that is not the same as market share. Sixty percent of EeePCs with Windows XP pre installed is not the same as selling that sixty percent. If GNU/Linux has carved out a popular niche for itself on the EeePC, new users and upgraders may stick with free software and Asus may not shift as many Windows XP machines. If that turned out to be the case Asus would be compelled to persist with GNU/Linux to meet consumer demand. Perhaps.
What next? Will the CEO of Asus wake up in the morning and find a horse's head in his bed? Will Bill and Steve make them an offer they can't refuse?
It's not as bad as it looks
Pitching your product at the biggest market does make sense. Here be profits. It is unreasonable to expect a business to disinterestedly promote software for reasons of principle or Evangelical piety and purity. Nevertheless, it would be rather galling to see software released under the GPL licence being using to establish a foothold in a new and emerging market only to have a kind of corporate raider/asset stripper step it and hoover up the fruits of all the initial hard work. Bill Gates may not be Gordon Gecko but clearly greed is good. Greed is right. I have no gripe with honest profit but parasitic profit annoys me. Really. (This is not dissimilar to the situation of GNU/Linux software being ported for cross platform use on Windows and Apple, Firefox and OpenOffice chief amongst them. Many argue that this tactic aimed at enticing users away from proprietary operating systems by giving them a "taster" of what free software has to offer can backfire because it is bagged but without much reciprocation, and more importantly, it fails to entice sufficient numbers of users to GNU/Linux.)
If the responses to reports on Zdnet are to be believed, Asus got a call from "a high placed and distinctly unhappy member of the Microsoft family" reminding them that "nasty thing happen" to people who don't take their "protection". What next? Will the CEO of Asus wake up in the morning and find a horse's head in his bed? Will Bill and Steve make them an offer they can't refuse?
The good news however is that Asus seems to be ploughing on with developments that are not entirely Windows centric. As I mentioned in the last of the four-part series on the EeePC they have released an SDK for the machine for developing software. More recently, Asus has developed Splashtop (dubbed "Express Gateway") to be embedded into all their motherboards (including those for EeePC models?). This allows for an almost instantaneous loading of a PC. It is composed of a proprietary OS running from the BIOS and a Linux stack on top of which the applications run. On 1st July the 901 and the 1000 EeePCs series will be released and both versions will come with a choice of GNU/Linux and Windows. So, it looks like Asus is not going out of its way to publically antagonize Microsoft whilst quietly proceeding with a binary policy of offering customers operating system choice across a range of hardware specifications. I would be happier if the playing field were level, that Asus didn't ship with sixty percent of machines with Windows XP pre installed.
It seems that GNU/Linux needs to be an underground success before it becomes - a success
Too many bottles, too few corks
The astounding success of the EeePC has been a shot in the arm for all lovers and supporters of GNU/Linux. It has thrilled everybody. However, it encapsulates the classic conundrum (or Catch 22) of GNU/Linux. When it comes preinstalled on machines like the EeePC it attracts interest like sharks in a feeding frenzy and Microsoft clamour for a piece of the action and start muscling in with bribes, threats and FUD. Exit GNU/Linux stage left. It seems that it needs to be an underground success before it becomes--a success. If it stays "underground" to avoid attracting attention to itself it just leaves the field open to the proprietary competition. It looks like a no win situation but that is only true if you view the position statically.
Hardware and software development is a constantly moving target. Asus might be hoist with the petard of its initial success but that very success has led to the equivalent of a nuclear chain reaction--and it is unstoppable. If Asus falter and cave in to proprietary pressure there are many others eager and willing to step up to the mark: Acer Aspire One, MSI Wind, HP Mini-Note, Dell E series--and they all offer free software solutions out of the box. It would take some very nimble footwork for Microsoft to manage or contain the threat offered by this Hydra-headed profusion of free software choice. I don't believe they can do it.
The genie is truly out of the bottle. Microsoft is just trying to put the cork back in. Well, let it
I started this article wondering and worrying that Asus were back sliding on GNU/Linux but I am inclined to conclude on a note of cautious optimism. The debut of the ultra portable laptops is what physicists would call a phase shift and that shift is changing some of the ground rules and, coincidentally, giving hardware vendors--perhaps for the first time--the ability to resist the siren lure of Microsoft. What really frightens Redmond is the thought and prospect that they can be done without after all. Even if Asus start to succumb to the threats or blandishments of Microsoft, the truth is that the emergence of the EeePC has led to a rash of clones and self-styled "EeePC killers"--and they all run GNU/Linux. The genie is truly out of the bottle. Microsoft is just trying to put the cork back in. Well, let it. There are too many bottles out there and they don't have enough corks. Cheers and bottoms up!