Netbook OSes: Which will rule the enterprise?

Windows may have the early lead, but don't rule out Linux just yet

Netbooks are selling at a nice clip -- IDC predicts more than 20 million units sold by year's end -- as consumers and education buyers wolf up these streamlined, low-cost laptop alternatives. Next up: the enterprise.

Netbooks is a "category with legs," says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with Seattle-based consultancy RedMonk, pointing to recent market activity as an indicator of the netbook's viability. Most obvious, he says, is Google's decision to build a separate Linux-based operating system -- Chrome OS -- specifically for netbooks. Meantime, Microsoft is grappling with "hard questions about its OS pricing relative to netbooks," and virtually every major hardware maker, apart from Apple Inc., has an offering in the category.

At Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, corporate customers already are evaluating netbooks, says Sarah Bussell, business notebook product manager at the company. They're looking at netbooks "as companion devices for highly mobile professionals, to provide occasional mobility to personnel that are typically desk-based, or to automate paper-based internal processes, such as onsite training," she says.

As netbooks head into the enterprise, questions about the best OS -- Windows or Linux -- for that market are beginning to arise. One might assume compatibility and familiarity with Windows are the first priorities for the corporate customer. And while this may be true for early enterprise deployments, many observers are leaving the door open for Linux.

Here are six factors that could determine which netbook OS will dominate the enterprise market.

1. Windows' familiarity

Corporate buyers want "stability, and they want sameness, even more than consumers want" it, says Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Group, whose research shows that consumers returned netbooks running Linux in greater numbers than they did those with Windows installed.

"They're going to gravitate toward the things that they already have installed, are able to support, and that users are comfortable with. That lines up pretty well with what's available on netbooks, which is mostly Windows XP," Baker says.

Lenovo sells netbooks with Windows XP Home Edition, as does HP, for example. But HP also offers its Mini 5101 netbook with SUSE Linux SLED 11. Bussell declined comment on which OS its early-adopter enterprise customers prefer.

2. Google's Chrome OS

Google's decision to enter the netbook OS race has garnered much interest and speculation -- but few predict it will take over the enterprise anytime soon.

RedMonk's O'Grady says he guesses that, at least initially, Google has near zero ambition for Chrome OS in the enterprise. The inherent challenges in trying to service complicated business needs would be too overwhelming for Google to handle, he says.

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