Special to The Globe and Mail
From the outside, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s new Compaq nx5000 notebook looks much like any other portable computer. But inside there's a difference.
The operating system installed on the nx5000 is not Microsoft Corp.'s ubiquitous Windows, but Linux. It's a decision that surprised some, because while the open-source operating system is widely used for servers, it's not yet a big player in the market for desktops and notebooks.
Until now, only a few small companies have offered Linux notebooks in Canada. But interest in Linux is growing, says Marc Silverman, co-owner of Toronto-based Sub500.com, which has sold Linux machines on-line for about two years, and recently opened its first storefront in northern Toronto.
Some view HP's move into the market as an important endorsement of Linux for laptops.
"Finally, a mainstream PC vendor is supporting Linux in a more aggressive way on notebooks and desktops," says Simon Yates, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
Does that mean Linux is taking road warriors by storm? No.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP is offering the nx5000 on a special-order basis in North America for now. Daniel Reio, product manager for commercial notebooks and tablet PCs at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, says HP is accepting orders for five or more machines. It's a different matter in Asia, where the nx5000 is an off-the-shelf product. It might be offered that way in Europe in the near future, too, Mr. Reio says, but he adds that in North America, "we're still pretty Windows-centric."
In North America, Mr. Yates says, Windows has about 95 per cent of the PC and notebook operating system market, with the remainder split about equally between Linux and Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh.
Major hardware vendors have shown little interest in Linux, leaving the niche to smaller manufacturers, who Mr. Yates says offer Linux mainly because it lets them sell computers for less. Mr. Silverman estimates that using Linux instead of Windows cuts the price by about $150.
HP is not the first major PC vendor to offer Linux installed on a notebook. Rob Herman, program director for the worldwide ThinkPad brand at International Business Machines Corp., points out that his company tried it in 2000. Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM offered one of its ThinkPads equipped with Caldera Inc.'s (now SCO Group Inc.) version of Linux.
"What we learned was that preloading Linux was probably biting off a little more than we wanted to chew at that time," Mr. Herman says. There was not a big enough market for a notebook with Linux preloaded, he says, so IBM opted instead to test and certify three popular Linux distributions on several of its desktops and about a dozen ThinkPad models. Those who want to use Linux can load it on those models and know that it will be compatible.
However, IBM recently took a small step back along the Linux notebook path. IBM is working with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. and several independent software vendors, testing Linux on the IBM ThinkPad T42p notebook. In a pilot program, engineers at IBM, Intel, Santa Clara-based National Semiconductor Corp. and some other IBM customers are using T42p notebooks with Linux installed, Mr. Herman says. And as with HP, although it hasn't been widely publicized, customers can special-order the T42p with Linux.
Mr. Yates predicts Dell Computer Corp. of Round Rock, Tex., might offer a Linux notebook if demand becomes strong enough. Still, he says Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft isn't greatly threatened by the increasing popularity of Linux on notebooks. "It will definitely grow," Mr. Yates says, but he adds that Windows has a strong grip on the notebook market. "I don't think [Linux] will ever replace Windows as the dominant operating system."