Switched On: The Linux ultraportable opportunity

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

The US smartphone market may continue to be dominated by mobile platforms from Apple, Microsoft, and RIM, but Linux has been creeping into ever more mobile devices in the last few years. Some Motorola RAZR 2 models have donned a Tux, Palm is looking to Linux to drive its next-generation consumer smartphones, and Android's backers hope to spread it to an even wider array of handsets. Linux is also driving many avant garde connected consumer electronics devices such as the Chumby, Nokia N810, Amazon Kindle, Dash Express, and whatever the fertile minds tinkering with Bug Labs' modules are envisioning,. Even the remote control that houses the user interface of Logitech's Squeezebox Duet is a Linux computer.

However, none of these products is intended for as flexible a range of uses as a notebook PC, where Linux is being tested as a tool to achieve lower price points on a new generation of low-cost but style-conscious ultraportables. ASUS set the pace with Xandros on the Eee PC, and HP has tapped Novell SuSE Linux for the 2133 Mini-Note, but whereas the Eee's positioning has been somewhat of a loose hybrid between an adult OLPC and the Nintendo Wii's culture of global inclusion, the HP Mini-Note has been strongly focused on reckless, immature students while acknowledging potential for senior executives that have been known to share their temperament.

This summer seems to be shaping up as a key time for ultraportables with new powerful and power-optimized processors coming to market, the highest-profile of which is Intel's Atom. However, the first real consumer test for these products will be this fall, when the key target market of students see them as a price-competitive alternative to the 15-inch budget notebook.

Compared to the Eee, HP's Mini-Note is positioned much more closely to a traditional PC with a $599 starting point for a version with Windows and a 120 GB hard drive. HP offers a version with Linux for $100 less, but even somewhat tailored standard desktop Linux operating systems can't match Windows for ease of use or application support. In a $500 device, Linux has a hard time competing powering a consumer PC.

At less than $300, though, the 2GB version of the Eee becomes more interesting as a mobile productivity appliance. ASUS created a friendly, tabbed interface with big watery icons for the Eee, but launching applications takes consumers into mostly off-the-shelf Linux applications, some of which struggle on the device's original 7-inch screen -- key to its low cost. Any illusion of a unified design dissolves quickly. Some obvious tasks, like simply changing the taskbar clock to display 12-hour instead of 24-hour time, can't be done with default graphical controls.

To maximize this opportunity, manufacturers should take a page from leading-edge specialized Linux devices and create an integrated and engaging platform optimized for this form factor. Of course, internet appliances have a miserable history, but times have changed. These products are now aimed at savvy, mobile, tech-savvy consumers, not the grandparents keeping MSN TV alive. Initiatives such as Adobe AIR and Google Gears are laying the groundwork for online lifestyle applications to invade the desktop. A patchwork national WiFi infrastructure courtesy of Starbucks is a forerunner of WiMAX and LTE networks. And even the 7-inch Eee has shown the aptitude of Firefox under Linux for average consumers.

It is no coincidence that, mirroring Microsoft's product gap between Windows Mobile and Windows Vista, the historically hazy and suddenly hot device space between the cellphone and the notebook is emerging as the best shot yet for the Linux desktop.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.