Puzzled by Linux Gadget popularity as of late?

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Do you find yourself puzzled by all the buzz surrounding the latest low cost gadgets running Linux? If you’re not that good at counting you might even think the buzz is translating into a huge opportunity. Well, no. Not really. But there is a lot of buzz. So let’s take a look at it:

First and perhaps most impressive is the EeePC from Asus, a $400 laptop, that seems to be on the neverending wishlists mostly because retailers are getting less than 10 of them at a time and it’s sold out everywhere.  Coming in at under 2lb, and with a 7” screen, 4GB flash drive (1.4GB available for storage) and a 900 MHz processor this device is as unimpressive as it’s battery life.

Second, and most interestingly completely sold out Everex TC2505 gPC at Walmart, is a $200 PC. Built around the premise that all applications will be web based and delivered through the cloud, gPC is pitched as a strict web device. Not that you can expect a lot more from this 1.5 GHz VIA C7 powered system that has sold out the entire initial shipment of 10,000.

Coming in third, for the sake of cutting down this near infinite list of Linux contenders, is Dell with competitors both unique and weird. Dell is rumored to have sold over 40,000 Dell / Ubuntu PC’s, likely one for each person that signed a petition for Dell to offer Ubuntu.

Honorable mention is also in order for OLPC XO laptop, ugly enough to make a third world child cry, which at least has a wonderful moral mission of providing children in third world countries with access to technology long before they are enslaved by Microsoft technical support and forced to say their name is Abraham or Roger.  

So what’s going on here…

Some of us that have been around for a while remember the nearly weekly announcements of NetBSD being ported from one appliance to another. Everything down right to a toaster seemed to get NetBSD support. This tradition of people porting operating systems to things that aren’t powerful enough to even control the lights in your bathroom continued into the new millenium, with Mini-ITX cases and boards, often available for as little as $50 with the motherboard and chip included and completely integrated – just supply case/power and storage.

Point is, the low end of the market is not really as low as we may imagine, at least not for the essential “computer user” operations like document management, surving and maybe some basic media.

So are we seeing a revolutionary new offering catering to the side of the market that has traditionally been ignored, or are we seeing the same old thing with some crafty demand management?

IMHO, what we see here is nothing new, at least not technically. Geeks have always been willing to part with small sums of money for the gadget power and the ability to say “My ___ runs Linux.”; What does seem to be new is that the Linux gadget makers may have mastered the intentional supply chain mismanagement to artificially paint the illusion of high demand. For Dell, Ubuntu is a failure – 40,000 machines is nothing. But if you ship 4 Eee’s and all 4 sell out, you’ve got a winner on your hands. People start tracking web sites so you can see where you can buy one, one shows up on eBay at 4x the cost… you have a winner, right? 

If you’re terribly bad at math, yes. Otherwise, you’ve got maybe 50,000 systems that cost 20–40% less than the entry level systems offered by Dell and HP, but far, far, far less functionality. The moral of the story is to always keep an eye open for the contenders but also to see it in the context of the big picture.