Netbook Linux at a Crossroads

Monday Feb 2nd 2009 by Jamie Lendino

The mixed reactions Linux-based netbooks generate among mainstream users are not an indication of failure -- they’re a learning opportunity for developers.

Much has been written about how Linux is an optimal OS for a lightweight netbook. And netbooks themselves are on a tear: ABI Research is projecting that 35 million will be shipped in 2009, and estimates that number to increase to a stunning 139 million by 2013—not bad for a category of PC that no one heard of 18 months ago.

But some buyers of Linux netbooks are running into trouble. MSI’s recent return rates – four times that of Windows XP models – and the recent controversial story of a woman who couldn’t do required classwork because she couldn’t run required software on her Linux netbook indicate that, at the very least, there’s a learning curve for the average user.

That brings up a good question: just how realistic is Linux on a netbook for mainstream computer buyers?

From one angle, it makes perfect sense—especially when compared to the complex, quasi-compatible handhelds and PDAs that have littered the tech industry landscape over the past 20 years. Plus, there’s still plenty of potential to refine Linux-based netbooks further.

On the other hand, as netbooks become more powerful, they’ll become more capable of running operating systems that require a larger memory, CPU, and hard disk footprint (be it Windows XP, or even Vista, Windows 7, or Mac OS X). As a result—and here’s the worrisome part—the door to mainstream Linux adoption could begin to close.

Here’s why: one of Linux’s greatest strengths—its open source design—also remains its greatest weakness. Dozens of distributions, each with different user interfaces, software bundles, and other characteristics, are on the market. That problem is beginning to hit netbooks, as each major manufacturer chooses a build and sticks with it—or improves it on its own, creating yet more variations.

That’s not necessarily bad, but let me explain why it’s a problem and not a feature. For all their well-documented flaws, Windows PCs and Macs have ironed out all sorts of weird UI glitches and incompatibilities over the years, things that pop up only after lots of people use them constantly. Plus, most people are already familiar with the way those two systems work (well, at least one of them, if not both). And they’ve grown to expect certain interface conventions.

For example, while writing this article, I tested an Asus Eee PC 1000 out of the box with an eye toward a new user’s experience. Overall, the machine ran really well. As with other netbooks I’ve tried, I enjoyed using the built-in StarOffice document editing suite, the Stellarium planetarium software, and the various other education and entertainment-themed apps.

Even watching videos on Hulu worked fine as long as I didn’t run them in full screen mode (which was a bit much for the hardware)—and there is the obvious benefit of not needing an Internet security suite to protect against Windows-based malware and viruses.

Anyone who’s used to powering up a new Windows XP or Vista machine for the first time, only to spend hours or days either cleaning out crapware or installing their own software, would be pleasantly surprised by the robust software bundle included with netbooks like this one.

The Nitty-Gritty of Netbook Linux

One glitch up front, however, was indicative of the kinds of problems mainstream buyers may have with Linux netbooks.

The machine found my WPA-encrypted network instantly, but misidentified it as WEP. Wanting to see what would happen, I keyed in my password anyway, which didn’t work (obviously)—but then the machine stopped asking me for a password, even when I tried to connect again.

Next Page: Are mainstream users up for Linux?

Normally, remembering settings would be a good thing, but in this case it remembered a bad setting. Most PCs today would know not to retain settings for something unless it worked at least once. But the Asus Eee PC just kept trying and failing.

It took a few moments, but I figured out where the settings were and reset the encryption to WPA. This seems like a brain-dead easy thing for a Linux maven—and many would call it user error (despite the fact that I did it on purpose). And it’s just one small example. But it’s the kind of thing that can frustrate someone who has never used Linux before, since Macs and PCs sort out wireless encryption automatically these days.

It’s one thing for a new Linux user to fire up a browser and check Gmail, or create a new document in OpenOffice and begin working—especially with the slick, well organized UIs that come with some netbooks like the Asus Eee PC I tested. Just about anyone can do those tasks within minutes.

But it’s another thing to figure out why a Linux system isn’t synchronizing properly with a digital camera or external DVD drive. Even simple tasks like listing the contents of a folder, listening to an MP3 track, or installing a new program are different. As I said in a previous article, “The Netbook OS Question: Windows XP vs. Linux,” none of these things are necessarily difficult, but they’re all completely different from what mainstream users expect.

Most things that aren’t working right on Linux can be solved with a trip to Google or some of the various Linux forums. But that’s also why Linux isn’t right for a lot of mainstream users.

There’s no desire to become part of an online community that’s dedicated to the OS itself. Most computer users today haven’t seen a command prompt since the late 1980s or early 1990s; many haven’t seen one at all.

Average folks don’t look at PCs the way a software engineer does. It has nothing to do with intelligence or laziness, despite what some of the more fervent Linux supports may insinuate. Instead, mainstream users buy personal computers to get work done, or to stay in touch with their friends, or to do myriad other tasks. Not everyone changes their car’s oil on their own, either.

On the other hand, many people who decide to stick with Linux end up falling in love with the OS. And there’s nothing important you can’t do with a Linux netbook these days, now that more tasks take place online through Web browsers than ever before.

In the end, there needs to be some way for developers to continue improving drivers and polishing user interfaces that work across multiple distributions. All of the right parts underneath the UI have been there for years. It’s the end-user experience that still has room for improvement.

Rather than looking at it as if Linux has failed, consider that it has already achieved 20 percent of current netbook shipments.

It did start with 100 percent due to the original 7-inch Asus Eee PC, so the percentage trend is heading downward. But by the end of 2009, that’s still seven million Linux-powered netbooks that weren’t on the market a year ago—ones that in almost all cases didn’t replace an existing Linux machine.

Overall, it’s not a bad start for an OS that many people had written off for desktop use years ago.

Looking to buy a netbook? Be sure to read Datamation’s comparison of six of the latest models before you make your decision.

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