Linux Falters in NetBooks

Posted by Zealot on Oct 05, 2008

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linux-desktop-i-want-to-believe The faithful told us that small, inexpensive, low powered Netbooks were to be the breakthrough product that Linux had always needed. They were perfectly tailored to suit Linux’s strengths (price, configurability, ease of localization).

When the Asus Eee 700/701 were released with a custom Xandros Linux distro, it seemed that the Linux faithful were exactly right and the open source OS had finally found a consumer market champion…but that didn’t last long. Soon, consumers were demanding the option to install XP instead of Linux. Then dedicated XP versions were being released by Asus to satisfy the market and they soon outsold the Linux versions despite the higher price tags . This then in turn ushered in the phenomenal initial growth of Netbooks. Now, Linux versions of Netbooks are really released only for hobbyists. The mainstream bread and butter is made with XP version sales.

Netbooks, which were hoped to finally establish a foothold in the consumer market for Linux, seem to have had the exact opposite effect. They have put paid once and for all to the belief that Linux will have a serious presence on the desktop any time soon, or be viable as a mainstream consumer OS. In the server room, sure Linux has a place, in fact I think over time Linux will come to utterly dominate the server market. However, will Joe and Judy Laptop ever embrace Linux on their home or work PCs?

Linux may look a lot like the Windows experience mainstream users are used to, it may talk like it, and walk like it…but deep down inside, consumers are consistently disappointed in it. The similarity betwen Linux and Windows is often enough to make a sale, especially since Linux machines are routinely a couple hundred dollers cheaper then XP/Vista PCs. However, as the user begins working with Linux, problems come up quickly. New, non-technical users continually cite endless misgivings about Linux… plug and play problems, a lack of the software titles they know and depend on, very few big budget games, a complex and confusing process for installing applications. No matter how cheap a computer my be in the store, it is too expensive if you then can’t use it.

The more technically minded and those who believe in Linux wholeheartedly may complain such users have been brainwashed by Microsoft, or haven’t the patience/skills/open-mindedness/intelligence to try any new OS, let alone Linux…but in the end there is a bottom line that they just can’t avoid….

…mainstream users don’t like Linux, and Linux doesn’t try very hard to change that.

Another case in point was described by MSi Director of US Sales Andy Tung in a recent interview with Laptop magazine

It seems as though brick-and-mortar retailers have been hesitant to stock netbooks or have even ignored them, at least until now. Why do you think that is?
Retailers have been hesitant to bring netbooks into stores because at that moment they were afraid that the netbook category would eat at their notebook sales. They were also only selling the only available product from ASUS, and sales were only okay, and they struggled with return rates, especially of Linux systems. But now it has become more of a trend and these retailers just have to be in this business.

You mention the return rates being high. Has that been the case with the Wind as well?

We have done a lot of studies on the return rates and haven’t really talked about it much until now. Our internal research has shown that the return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks, but the main cause of that is Linux. People would love to pay $299 or $399 but they don’t know what they get until they open the box. They start playing around with Linux and start realizing that it’s not what they are used to. They don’t want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks.

Return rates for Linux FOUR TIMES that of XP devices, and growth of the entire category slowed by using Linux? That is pretty damning indeed, especially if it is consistent across the industry…and looking at the overwhelming preponderance of Windows Netbooks over Linux versions, I have to assume it is.

Despite the brief surge in popularity of Linux in the first days of Netbooks, it has fallen again to the status of a niche OS, and more and more forum posts from Linux mavens are returning to the familiar refrain of “We like that Linux is hard to implement, proves it is the OS for those with the know-how to use it, not just some guy who bought a computer at Best Buy…”

However, without those guys just buying computers at Best Buy, Linux will never even come close to becoming what it was always envisioned to be…a viable competitor to Windows in the marketplace. If Linux can’t do it with Netbooks, I don’t think it ever will.

Zealot (839 Posts) - Website | Twitter | Facebook


By day a department manager and writer for a major network device vendor...by night Zealot stalks the mean magnetic streets, striking fear into the hearts of bandwidth abusers and theme park mascots. Zealot has been involved with mobile devices for more than a decade now, starting off with dumb phones, moving to PDAs and then to smartphones, notebooks and netbooks with the odd PMP thrown in. Most of his mobile time currently is spent on a Treo Pro, Zune HD, Thinkpad T61, HP Mini 311, iPod Touch 3G, iPad 16G or a Hackintoshed Compaq Mini 704. He proudly groks the Geek community and considers himself a Neo Maxi Zune Dweebie (thanks Wil Wheaton!).

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  • zelrik

    I would say that while the user experience was bad with Linux netbooks, the constructors on their side did not pick their distribution wisely. The BIG names of Linux for user friendlyness and such did not enter the market until late (the first netbook with ubuntu preinstalled was released like what…1 month ago?)

  • http://www.svpocketpc.com Pony99CA

    Return rates for Linux FOUR TIMES that of XP devices[...]

    That’s interesting, but not very useful without know what the actual rate is. If XP devices have a 0.1% return rate and Linux a 0.4% return rate, I’m not sure that’s a big deal.

    However, if XP devices have a 10% return rate and Linux devices have a 40% return rate, that would be a huge deal.

    Steve

  • Zealot

    Good point, but I think it is revealing that Tung says that retailers were “struggling” with return rates, so they must have been signifiant.

    Also the key is not so much the actual numbers, but that after purchase Linux systems were being rejected at four times the rate of Windows systems. Quadrupling user dissatisfaction rates is major, whatever the figures are.

  • http://www.svpocketpc.com Pony99CA

    Good point, but I think it is revealing that Tung says that retailers were “struggling” with return rates, so they must have been signifiant.

    There are two problems with that claim, though.

    First, Tung, who works for MSI, was talking about a competitor’s product. Maybe that’s just his bias speaking. I wonder if he actually knows the product return numbers for ASUS (which, if true, they might want kept quiet).

    Second, look at the full quotation again (with my emphasis add): “They were also only selling the only available product from ASUS, and sales were only okay, and they struggled with return rates, especially of Linux systems.”

    So it sounds like ASUS was struggling with returns on both XP and Linux systems, just moreso with Linux. So maybe there was an expectation gap on the whole product, not just Linux.

    Also the key is not so much the actual numbers, but that after purchase Linux systems were being rejected at four times the rate of Windows systems. Quadrupling user dissatisfaction rates is major, whatever the figures are.

    Not true at all. If I sold a million units of XP and got only one returned and a million units of Linux and got only four returned, I think I’d be happy with both results. The four times difference would fall into statistical insignificance.

    Yes, I’m probably exaggerating, but just to prove the point that you shouldn’t get alarmed without knowing the actual numbers. Otherwise it could just be statistical spin.

    It’s like polls. If I told you 66% of voters favored McCain, that might be very interesting — until you found out that I only asked 3 people.

    I’m not saying that your conclusion is wrong, of course. Maybe people don’t like Linux. I’m just not sure those quotations give us enough data to make that claim.

    Steve

  • TOCA

    Linux is for geeks, allways has been, and still is.

    Yes you can make it look like Windoze or MacOS, but it does not feel like it, as soon as you get beneath the surface of the desktop, you are lost, unless you are used to the Linux way.

    We are not brainwashed by M$, we have been pampered by them.

    If I want to download some thing for WinXP, I don’t need to know that it’s Windows version 5, 32 bit, I look for the version named XP, and after downloading I run the exe file, and the rest is taken care of by the OS. Try that in any Linux distro.

    The name of the game is ease of use, not looks nor pricing, the end user will accept the looks of Win 3.1, at the prize of Vista, as long as it does not involve brain activity to use it.

  • JakeRich

    @TOCA, your challenge to “Try that in any Linux distro” has been done. I run Ubuntu (Hardy Heron) on a Dell desktop. The desktop is an older Dell with a single core processor and used to run WinXPPro. I moved to Ubuntu when the box got slow with all the Windows so-called protections from virus checkers, adware blockers and finally, SP3.

    Installation of Ubuntu was flawless, and even offered to have dual boot capability. Ubuntu has an update function. Invoke the updater, it knows what you have installed and looks for later distros of that software, downloads it and installs the updates, all automatically. As for new software, there is a pretty complete listing of software that is available for Linux included in the distribution. Click and install. It even checks to see if you have all the components necessary and advises you that if you want to run X, you also need Y. Again, click to install. I now run that box as the file server in my home network. It runs Samba so that my wife’s windows box can see it, and it connects to my iMac and windows laptop from work just fine. It’s actually much easier to connect from the iMac but I did finally get windows to admit that there was a network and that there was a server on that network. Talk about needing a geek, try networking under windows!

    So, for ease of use, Linux is actually ahead of windows. The challenge for Linux is to get the idea that “Linux is for geeks” out of the brainwashed heads of potential users. Redmond has done a good job of marketing. Now if it would just concentrate as much time on building a stable OS…

  • zelrik

    @TOCA : You did not really try ubuntu did you? I find it simpler to install software on Linux for most of them. Unless it’s some totally unknown software developed by a couple of nerds, it’s very easy to install them.

    Also I challenge you to update all your softwares at once on windows.

  • doogald

    I’m sure that there are loads of people for which Open Office is an unacceptable replacement for MS Office, and perhaps there are iPod and Zune users out there who really want iTunes and Zune software as well.

  • Pony99CA

    @JakeRich:

    The challenge for Linux is to get the idea that “Linux is for geeks” out of the brainwashed heads of potential users.

    Do you really think that’s the challenge? Do you believe mainstream (non-geeky) people would even know what Linux is, much less say “it’s for geeks”?

    I think if you asked most non-techies what Linux is, they’d have no clue.

    @doogald:

    I’m sure that there are loads of people for which Open Office is an unacceptable replacement for MS Office, and perhaps there are iPod and Zune users out there who really want iTunes and Zune software as well.

    Heck, I suspect there are Windows Mobile users out there who want to sync with their PC. Does Linux have something like Outlook?

    Steve

  • TOCA

    I have tryed Ubuntu, but got stuck when I wanted to install a driver for my GeForce Video card. The ones that Ubuntu suggested it self only gave me ultra wide screen ressolutions, and the ones I found my self gave me a max ress @ 640*480 or some other wide screen low ress options, rendering every thing useless, as I have a standard 1280*1024 screen, which did not react kindly to 1024*480.

    I even did a fair deal of reading forums on how to get it sorted, but as Engrish is not my main lingo, I didn’t quite get all the techie stuff, about opening some special file in some program, which I had to download, in order to find the correct driver, and I’m a semi geek, making a living from knowing stuff about Computers, I’d like to see Joe Average tinkering with errors like that.

    @Pony99CA
    Heck, I suspect there are Windows Mobile users out there who want to sync with their PC. Does Linux have something like Outlook?

    No but there is software out there making WinMob able to sync online with G-Mail, G-Calendar, Contacts etc. and even to sync with Mozilla programs.

  • zelrik

    @TOCA : That issue you had with your drivers, one could get the same issue on Windows. I dont remember being happy with the driver management on Windows, and I did mess around with it for some time. I also dont remember having to install any driver for my video card (Intel) after installing ubuntu 8.04 on my laptop.

    Also keep in mind that the average Joe doesnt install Windows/Linux, he just buys a computer with an OS preinstalled on it.

  • Zealot

    @zelrik – While the tendency by mainstream consumers to buy a computer without worrying about the OS is not as common now as it was (Steve Ballmer would be the first to say that even bad publicity is good publicity, as most EVERYONE now knows that PCs run Windows), it still does happen. This I feel is mainly due to the fact that many nontechnical buyers just ASSUME that a new PC will run Windows. After all, one must really make an effort to find a desktop or mainstream notebook computer that runs Linux without a special order.

    The fact that what these consumers assumed was Windows on their new netbook is in fact “this weird Linux stuff” may help account for all those returns

  • Pony99CA

    The fact that what these consumers assumed was Windows on their new netbook is in fact “this weird Linux stuff” may help account for all those returns

    That would make sense, but how much different is the GUI from Windows? If the GUI is decent, and you use a netbook for mostly browsing, as long as you could spot the Back, Forward and Home buttons, you should be OK.

    Even if you want to do more than browsing, if somebody can switch from a PC to a Mac, I suspect they could switch to a Linux GUI.

    The biggest problems would probably occur if the user had to change some settings and the distro didn’t include a user-friendly Control Panel.

    Steve

  • zelrik

    I think we also have to be fair here, while some people returned their Linux computer to the vendor and the windows netbooks dominating the market, quite a few people did buy Linux netbooks and kept it and I think it goes much further than just geeks.

  • JakeRich

    @TOCA, as zelrik pointed out, the latest version of Ubuntu does an excellent job of finding and installing the proper drivers for everything in your machine. It even set the res of my monitor to the appropriate level, picking the highest res available to the monitor/vid card combo. And a friend reported that when he changed monitors that Ubuntu adjusted the resolution automatically when it detected the new monitor on the next reboot. (I can’t say I’ve seen that, since I haven’t changed monitors, but my friend is a reliable source–he refurbs old Suns, PCs, Macs and generic *nix boxes for charity.)

    I have, and use, Open Office on Ubuntu and NeoOffice on Mac and both are as useful to me as M$ Office.

    The real reason Windows is the “norm” is the licensing agreements that got MicroSoft into court–they charged PC manufacturers a fee per machine sold, even if that machine didn’t actually have Windows on it. Basically, the manufacturers paid to put windows on, then had to pay again to put any other commercial OS on. MS got the money in either case, so the manufacturers reasoned they might as well put Windows on EVERY box and leave it to you if you want something else.

    So it’s not quality that got Windows everywhere, it was the monopolistic licensing agreements.

  • TOCA

    I don’t recall what version of Ubunt I used, but it was downloaded this spring, guess it was 8.xx?, and it most seartainly did not recognise neither my GeForce 7600GS card nor my 17″ Medion LCD monitor automatically.

    Don’t worry though, I haven’t given up yet, I have an old Laptop in my kitchen, currently running Win ME, which I will try upgrading to Ubuntu, if I get a few days off durring the Christmass holydays ;)

    And Open Office should be made the pre installed Office suit of choice for all consumer PC’s IMO :)

  • Pony99CA

    @JakeRich:

    The real reason Windows is the “norm” is the licensing agreements that got MicroSoft into court–they charged PC manufacturers a fee per machine sold, even if that machine didn’t actually have Windows on it. Basically, the manufacturers paid to put windows on, then had to pay again to put any other commercial OS on. MS got the money in either case, so the manufacturers reasoned they might as well put Windows on EVERY box and leave it to you if you want something else.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think OEMs had to license using those terms. I think Microsoft just gave the best licensing rates to OEMs that chose that license.

    So, from a business standpoint, it could still have been cheaper for OEM to use that license and pay a second OS license for the probably less-than-5% of customers who wanted it. For example, even if I only paid $1 less for using that license, the other software only cost $5 to license and my 5% figure is reasonable, I’d pay $95 less using the per-PC license for every hundred PCs sold (5 * $5 = $25 vs. 95 * $1 + 5 * $5 = $120).

    I think it was a sleazy license, but if it wasn’t the only license available, some blame could go to the OEMs for using it.

    Even if there was only that one license, I think that was for DOS (Reference), not Windows, and thus more or less irrelevant once Windows 95 came out.

    OS/2 was a better OS than Windows 3.1, could run many Windows programs and had the backing of IBM, but even that wasn’t enough to overcome Windows.

    Steve

  • Zealot

    The argument that Windows is an inferior OS which is only successful due to “evil” marketing campaigns and underhanded licensing agreements has gotten pretty tired.

    First and foremost clever marketing and advantageous licensing agreements are simply good business. When did that become something bad or inately dishonest? As Steve pointed out, the OEMs had options, no one had a gun to their heads. Why is it that for years successes of companies like Google and Apple were due to how brilliant and visionary they were, and Microsoft’s successes were due to witchcraft, greed and stupidity. Accept it…Apple, Google and Microsoft are where they are because they have simply out executed their opponants, each in their own niches and in their own ways. You can not like the way Microsoft (or now Google) went about it, but 95% market share must mean they did SOMETHING right.

    Does Windows have problems…sure. How could it not when it is so dominant that it has to be everything, to everyone, in 50,000+ different hardware configurations. However, for most users, Windows simply works and does what they want it to do. It is true that Linux may also be able to do what they need, maybe even better then Windows at least on netbooks, but they are familiar with IE, and Word and the way Windows works. From 3.1 to Vista, Windows has been developed as a CONSUMER OS, tweaked and structured to suit the way most people use their computers. Linux, like Unix before it, is an ENGINEERS OS. You need to know what you are doing to use it, there is just no way around it. For most Linux users, that is a good thing. The Linux is for Geeks tag wasn’t created by Microsoft, it was created by Linux users. For too many years the complexity and code heavy nature of Linux installation and configuration was viewed as a badge of pride, like building a tube radio from a radio shack kit. Part of the pleasure of Linux always seemed to be the accomplishment of making it all work from scratch. Tube radio kits are great if you are into that, but most people just go buy a transitor radio, not build one.

    That is why Linux will never make major inroads in the consumer market. Most people don’t want to have to build their OS.

  • Don’t Panic!

    I go over to the Eeeusers forums a lot since I got my ASUS 901 XP and what I have noticed are that the Linux posts invovle a lot of How do I.. and Why can’t I… comments which when answered have very complicated solutions. The XP How do I.. Why can’t I… questions are usually answered fairly swiftly and can be fixed fairly easily with third-party programs or simple registry hacks.

    This thread is a good example of what this topic is really about; http://forum.eeeuser.com/viewtopic.php?id=43720 (I’m 42! in that thread)

  • badgaz

    It isn’t suprising when the Xandros distro on the EEE line sucks so bad. They should have used Ubuntu + Netbook Remix. They’re making Linux look bad.

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