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Monday, December 10, 2007

Disrupting a Monopoly

The best innovations tend to be cheap and disruptive. Hand in hand as they're usually found, these characteristics go some way to explaining why I like the EeePC (Asus's new laptop) so much. The other reasons are obvious, it's small, it's light, it has WiFi, Firefox and Open Office, and judging by the reactions of those who saw Paul and I with them at Bar Camp Leeds, it's cool enough for everyone to want one!
Laptops have (until now) tended to follow an unwritten law of small gadgets; the smaller it is the more you'll pay. However the Eee seems to mark a reversal of the trend. We're now seeing the law of mobility combined with commodity hardware, meaning one of the smallest laptops available is also the cheapest ( and most valuable in terms of it's utility.

The real disruption however; isn't in how it's defining a new market for cheap, super small, capable laptops, but it's in how it nicely packages free and open alternatives to the two biggest monopolies in the technology industry, Microsoft Windows and Office. This strategy accompanied by their recent announcement to release an SDK and support the community should only serve to foster a strong community and potential competitor.

As hardware costs have fallen Microsoft customers have been paying ever greater percentages of the total device cost to Microsoft. Though it seems with the release of the EEE PC we have reached the threshhold where manufacturers are beginning to produce devices so cheap that the cost of Windows is by far the most expensive part of the device.

Hence ASUS have persued the most cost effective and profitable solution, to tailor an existing Linux distribution to the device constraints (7" screen, 4GB SSD disk) whilst targeting the device at the mass market of people wanting cheap, portable, internet access.

Despite being careful not to divorce themselves of Windows completely by including Windows drivers for the hardware, Asus's strategy of unbundling Windows and shipping the device with Linux clearly caused a panic in Redmond. The result, a substantial discount on Windows XP for for Eee users, but what about Office software? (Similarly the OLPC program has led to Microsoft discounting software to $3 in developing nations whilst allegations of dirty tricks surround both Microsoft and Intel and their attempts to sink Negroponte's project).

Even with the Eee discount persuading some users not to leave Windows behind, I expect the Eeepc and other devices of a similar form factor and cost to significantly further free software adoption particularly on the laptop.

Desktop computing is a complex landscape with a diversity of hardware, user requirements and expectations. Consequently users are locked into the Windows mindset as well as their software, making anything else appear foreign and unintuitive. Despite this, Desktop Linux is viable for most types of PC user, though there are many barriers to overcome.

In the super portable Laptop market however, user expectations are different. They want something small and simple to browse the web, check their email and perform basic office tasks. Further to this the windowing metaphor begins to breakdown as users are required to run most of their applications full screen. These constraints immediately put the Linux O/S with Asus's customisations at an advantage, as the interface has been tailored to suit the devices form factor and usage scenarios.

It's a classic Christensen disruptive technology which will soon cause both new market and low-end disruption. This has been on the cards for some time and led to the development of Windows XP Starter Edition and Windows Fundamentals. However this strategy of developing cut down Windows distributions can only go on so long before the game is no longer worth the candle.

Indeed, recent comments from Microsoft VP Will Poole indicate an engineering struggle in trying to port Windows onto the OLPC's XO, and it's by no means clear whether they'll manage to get it to work on the device. Yet this is seldom a problem for Linux which supports more architectures than any other O/S.

Ultimately however it's clear that Microsoft will long remain a prominent player in the industry, however some speculate they may copy Apple and build their platform ontop of another O/S. Given their 2004 $2bn peace treaty with Sun, Solaris might be a candidate. Either way, what's important is that we're beginning to see some much needed competition and innovation in this space.


Rick Moynihan
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