As netbooks head into the enterprise, questions about the best OS - Windows, Chrome or Linux - for that market are beginning to arise.

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 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, has an offering in the category.

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At HP, 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.

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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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Says Baker, who is extremely skeptical of Google's chances of breaking into the netbook OS field, whether it be for enterprise or the average end user: "Come back to me in 18 months when there's something actually out. What the market looks like when they come out with something is not going to look anything like what today's market looks like for netbooks."

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Google "believes there's an opportunity. All the decisions [by enterprise buyers] have not been made," says Jeff Orr, an analyst with ABI Research.

"There's an opportunity to enter that space and to create platforms that provide a more fine-tuned or refined experience for the Web and Internet."

In announcing Chrome, Orr said, Google may have spurred Microsoft to alter or speed up its strategy for Windows 7 on netbooks, leading up to the recent news about the technical limitations and other rules Microsoft wants imposed on OEMs that want to sell netbooks with the next version of Windows installed.

Orr theorized that Google's announcement of Chrome may have helped to motivate Microsoft to hurry up with a specialized netbook edition of Windows 7 instead of just leaning on Windows XP for the netbook market.

3. Too many Linux choices for netbooks?

Besides Chrome, other Linux choices for netbooks include Intel's Moblin, Ubuntu and even Android, Google's mobile device OS.

The Linux camp, "while offering choice to the market, is in danger of fragmenting itself with multiple, highly differentiated choices," says RedMonk's O'Grady.

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NPD's Baker takes a different position. He says the Linux-based netbook variants aren't causing a problem. "There has to be some market presence for there to be 'confusion.' CIOs aren't particularly confused, because they're not likely to use any of those products right now," he says.

4. Cloud computing services and applications

The question of which netbook OS will dominate in the enterprise could be irrelevant if cloud computing becomes prevalent in the enterprise.

Windows compatibility doesn't matter when accessing cloud services via netbooks, says Sam Johnston, a consultant who specializes in cloud computing and netbooks.

A netbook can access a virtualized version of any OS hosted on a remote server, including a traditional Windows desktop, he says.

While O'Grady says he feels that enterprises will be loath to change from Windows in the foreseeable future, he agrees that the cloud model makes the OS choice less relevant.

"To the extent that workloads increasingly shift toward software as a service, the question of what operating system a user is running becomes less important, which gives the challengers cause for hope."

5. Cost of the OS

Linux will eventually win out in enterprises for a simple reason - cost, Johnston says. "With hardware cost trending rapidly toward zero, and sub-$100 devices being a possibility in the short-to-medium term, it is impossible to carry even a modest operating system cost," he reasons.

Orr of ABI agrees Microsoft will face a challenge on cost given that most Linux-based choices are or will be free to install and use. It's too soon to say, but whether corporate netbooks will adopt Windows 7 widely will depend on whether it's a fully functional version and how much it costs, he says.

6. Hardware limitations

But Orr theorizes that in the enterprise the battle for the netbook OS of choice will not play out like it did for traditional notebooks and desktops.

In general, netbooks are purposely limited in processing speed and storage space, and smaller in size compared to most offerings falling under the notebook category, to keep costs low.

Because of this, netbooks may never be capable enough to fully exploit all the features of the latest version of Windows, or another processor-heavy OS.

A lightweight OS - with its code base taking up minimal space on the netbook's storage medium, and starting up and performing tasks near instantly - could be key for the netbook's acceptance in enterprises.

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"The initial opportunity for netbooks will align with Windows and, specifically, Windows XP. But that choice will segment, as instant-on operating systems become more prevalent," Orr says.

Johnston says, "The winner will almost certainly be Linux running on ARM processors - what I have been referring to as 'LinARM,'" a play on Wintel (Windows/Intel). ARM is a popular processor architecture for mobile devices.

Baker, reliably bullish for Windows, argues that the netbook's evolving form factor and technology will not make much difference in the Linux adoption decision: "One of the reasons why we have a lot of Windows in the market now is because that's what everybody is comfortable with. If you make great changes, there's a big learning curve. And from a CIO perspective, they have to think about what the cost is of training their people to use something different."

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