Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is on the verge of releasing a major new operating system. Uncertain what prospects the new platform holds for them, hardware vendors are exhibiting renewed interest in shipping alternative operating systems, such as Linux, on their machines. Is it early 2007 again? Not quite, but it kind of seems that way in light of Asus's introduction of a new Ubuntu netbook. Here's the scoop.

Yes, Asus is actually calling this machine, the F201E, a "netbook" -- for its customers in Germany, at least, which is currently the only market where the device is available for preorder. That's significant language in an era when netbooks by most accounts went out of fashion a couple years ago, after becoming synonymous with terms such as"underpowered," "small screen" and "unable to run post XP versions of Windows well."

On the other hand, whether this device actually qualifies as a netbook may be a matter of debate. Priced at 299 euros, it's not quite as inexpensive as the netbooks of yore, which could be had in some cases for little more than $200. At the same time, while its 4GB of memory and Intel Sandy Bridge Celeron processor are not exactly top of the line, the machine also boasts hardware somewhat more powerful than that of traditional netbooks, which generally sported Atom CPUs and no more than 2GB of RAM.

The Asus F201E and Ubuntu

The F201E's most interesting characteristic, however, is not its hardware profile but rather the fact that one of the preinstalled operating system options is Ubuntu Linux. That's an interesting move on Asus's part, particularly because it comes just before the release of Windows 8 on Oct. 26 -- which happens, in fact, to be precisely the same day that the F201E is slated to go on sale in Germany from

Why might Asus, which started offering Linux on its devices long ago but has never made a particularly strong commitment to open source platforms, now be making Ubuntu an option? We can only speculate, but if we take the era of Windows Vista's debut as a guide, perhaps the reason is that Asus is unsure how successful the newest version of Windows will prove on its hardware.

In other words, just as the release of Vista prompted a flurry of interest among OEMs in open source alternatives -- with the strongest example being Dell (NASDAQ: DELL), which launched a line of Ubuntu laptops and PCs in early 2007, just as Vista was hiting the market -- Asus now may be aiming to keep its options open in case Windows 8 is not received as well as Microsoft hopes.

This isn't to say Windows 8 will prove to be a total catastrophe that gives rise to the mythical Year of the Linux Desktop. That won't happen, no matter how much one believes in the omnipotence of St. Ignucius.

The news does show, however, that Linux is far from dead as a desktop operating system in the eyes of at least one major international hardware vendor. And it suggests that rigid loyalty to Microsoft among OEMs may not be as complete as it once appeared.

And by the way, the F201E is only one of two new Asus laptops rumored to be offered with an Ubuntu option. According to Notebook Italia, a second device, the X201E, will also be sold with Ubuntu. It remains to be seen, however, in which markets Asus will make that machine available.