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Microsoft may be on its way to vanquishing Linux in the war to dominate netbook operating systems, but the ground could be shifting against Windows.

An NPD Retail Tracking Service report states the Windows installation rate on netbooks has grown from 10 per cent in the first half of 2008 to 96 per cent in February 2009.

With netbooks touted by analysts and open-source enthusiasts as the way for Linux to beat Windows, Microsoft’s Windows flacks have seized on the study.

Windows communications manager Brandon LeBlanc has crowed that far from the netbook being an opportunity for Linux, the exact opposite is true. “A number of analysts and researchers following the space see ample evidence indicating customers really DO want netbook PCs to work like their larger brethren – and that the way the vast majority of consumers make that happen is by buying a netbook PC with Windows."

Rubbing in the salt, LeBlanc added: "Not only are people overwhelmingly buying Windows, but those that try Linux are often returning it," he said.

Why, you might ask? LeBlanc: "Because users simply expect the Windows experience. When they realize their Linux-based netbook PC doesn’t deliver that same quality of experience, they get frustrated and take it back."

Ouch.

If the NPD numbers are correct - even if we allow for a fairly hefty margin of error - it appears that Linux lovers have missed the netbook boat.

However, there are a few caveats.

The NPD data reproduced by LeBlanc does not state which version of Windows is getting installed netbooks. According to Microsoft’s financial results, its Windows XP not Windows Vista because Windows Vista is too big and too slow for most netbooks.

The problem there is Window XP will be end-of-lifed by Microsoft when Windows Vista’s successor Windows 7 ships, meaning no more Windows XP for netbooks.

That will re-set the competition of Windows versus Linux on the netbook market, meaning there's everything to play for once again.

And that means those who will swing this market will be those who make or sell netbooks, and whether they choose to ship machines running Windows or Linux. Which brings us on to who exactly is doing the shipping.

Another boat is boarding as we speak: telcos offering netbooks with service plans. AT&T announced just such a pilot program last week, Verizon is reported to be investigating a similar effort, and T-Mobile is reportedly looking into bundling an Android-based tablet computer with its service later this year.

Google's Android OS, as you'll recall, is Linux-based.

In fact, no less a Linux-lover than Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, is promoting the netbook-cum-service business model for Linux.

"The typical operating system game is: create operating system, go to vendor, ask them to pay X amount per device, have them ship with device," Zemlin recently told The Reg. "That's not the only game in town."

Zemlin's called for those offering netbooks to go beyond the old model of making a PC, installing an operating system, and selling it to the user. He’s called for a kick ass, industrial design with customized software experience subsidized services, movies or entertainment.

In other words, provide the whole delicious enchilada yourself: hardware, software, operating system, and wired/wireless internet service. And with that operating system being either open-source Linux or Google's free Android, a subsidized netbook could be a truly affordable snack.

With both HP and Asustek reportedly mulling Android-based netbooks, perhaps Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile should have one eye on those companies' efforts and the other on AT&T's pilot program.

After all, netbooks are bundled with wireless service in Europe - why not add wired service as well, and why not include the US?.

Microsoft and Windows might have already locked down the netbook-as-PC market according to LeBlanc and NPD. And to be sure, Windows should do well on netbooks, largely thanks to the people’s familiarity with Windows and the sheer number of applications.

Netbooks are a new market, though, and the certainties that helped Microsoft in the past - OEM lock in, a predictable channel, closed code, zero competition – are breaking down. Much will depend on how Windows 7 does on netbooks and whether the new providers decide Linux gives them more freedom than Windows before the netbook war can be considered over.®

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