Jon Honeyball looks deep into our Eees and foretells doom for Microsoft's future.
I've recently been looking at the new wave of sub-micro laptops flooding in from various vendors, with Asus' Eee PC range the best known. With each iteration the product just seems to get better and better, but with the arrival of the Intel Atom processor the whole genre has come into a new tighter focus. These aren't quick devices, and haven't a hope of playing games - but it doesn't matter, as they're the computing reincarnation of the pad of paper. Take notes on it, browse the web, check your emails: in other words, all the things you've always been able to do so well on your desktop, but using a fraction of the power. And at a fraction of the cost.
It's a very mobile solution, too - pick up a stack of papers, and the weight of the Eee device adds little to the pile, especially if you have a shoulder bag, too. Battery life is excellent, and it just works.
And now Asus has launched the Eee Box, a desktop unit that's the guts of the Atom-based Eee laptop, but repackaged into a super-cute desktop unit. Again, the Atom processor isn't likely to set any hearts aflutter in terms of power, but the unit is tiny, silent, and has a full set of connectivity for its intended purpose. It has decent graphics output over DVI, and you just need to add in a mouse and keyboard.
But all of this isn't the real issue. No, the big issue is that on some of these models Asus is offering a custom build of Linux. There's a Windows XP offering, too - even if it's the Home edition rather than Professional - but it's the Linux version that's causing the most waves. The desktop is clean and simple, configuration is easy, and it had no problems hooking straight up to my HP 5550 A3 colour laser - it even knew that the monster had five paper trays and a hard disk, which is often more than the Windows driver can manage.
The bundling of OpenOffice is an inspired move, too - it includes a perfectly serviceable word processor, spreadsheet and presentation application. It might not have the final polish of Office 2007, but it doesn't have the bizarre UI contortions either. Or the price tag. Sure, there's no integration of SharePoint Server, but how many of you really worry about that? No, Mr Gates, you can put your hand down - your vote doesn't count.
So where does this leave Microsoft? Well, on the Windows versions of the Eee PC the limited power of the Atom processor means it's forced to ship XP, the product it keeps hoping will die. There's no sign of that, of course - too many people still prefer it to Vista. A quick look at the Dell UK website, just to use a convenient example, shows that you can buy a business desktop machine with Vista Business for a mere £129 excluding VAT and shipping. Change that to Vista Business, but with XP Professional preinstalled, and it's £10 more - effectively for both. Well, that was a hard choice, wasn't it?
Yes, there's lots to like in Vista, but most people are staying firmly attached to their beloved XP. Microsoft, naturally, claims that people love Vista, and those who don't are simply stupid or ill-informed. See the latest "Mojave" embarrassment for yet more Redmondian head-in-sand tactics, where marketing arrogance is matched only by PR ignorance.
All of this can only be bad news for Microsoft. There's a growing volume market here that's very price sensitive, and Microsoft needs to have a presence on these machines to maintain market share. The problem for Microsoft is that the Linux Eee PC is a classy piece of work, and you get a great deal of useful bundled stuff with the machine. The XP version is fine as far as it goes, but it suffers badly from small-font-itis. The 96 pixels per logical inch standard setting in Windows results in text that's too small. The Linux installation is larger and easier to read. If you'd prefer a full-power Linux, look at the HP 2133 Mini-Note, which comes with SUSE Enterprise Desktop.