The other day MSI’s Andy Tung told Laptop Magazine that netbooks running Linux were returned 4 times more often than netbooks running Windows. I took that admission with a grain of salt, because MSI is just one of a number of companies pushing Linux-based netbooks. And MSI is loading SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop on its MSI Wind U90 netbooks, while other companies like Acer, Dell, and Asus have chosen different distributions like Ubuntu, Linpus Linux Lite, and Xandros. So it was hard to tell if MSI’s figure was representative of anything other than MSI netbooks.
But Laptop Mag decided to follow up by asking Canonical’s marketing manager Gerry Carr about the situtation with Ubuntu-based netbooks. And Carr says that while he doesn’t have figures for Windows XP return rates, he does believe that netbooks running open source operating systems are returned more often than netbooks running Windows.
I wouldn’t go reading too much into this. It doesn’t mean that Linux isn’t as good or better than Windows in many ways. All it means is that people are returning netbooks running Linux more often than those that run an OS they’re probably more familar with. There could be any number of reasons for this.
- Some manufacturers may not be doing a great job of customizing their Linux distros to work with the hardware. For example, the MSI Wind U90’s webcam reportedly doesn’t work with SUSE.
- Netbook makers and retailers might not be doing as good a job as possible of letting people know that some netbooks run Linux, which is different from Windows. If you read the product description too quickly, or even look at a KDE 3.5-based menu system, you might not even realize that a netbook doesn’t run Windows until you get it home and discover that it doesn’t run Internet Explorer and MSN Messenger. Sure, there are alternatives, but many people just want their computers to run the software they’re used to.
- Some folks may even pick up a computer knowing that it runs an OS they’re not used to, but figuring it won’t be too difficult to learn, only to be stymied by little differences like the fact that you can’t necessarily install software the way you’re used to, or that you have to jump through some hoops you’re not familar with to install restricted source software like Adobe Flash to watch YouTube videos.
So what’s the solution? Is it to offer Windows as the only option for netbooks? Of course not. But netbook makers who want to offer Linux as a low cost but powerful alternative to Windows need to do a better job of making sure the hardware is supported and that most of the features you want to work just work out of the box. And they need to do a better job of providing new and prospective customers with the information they’ll need to make the transition from Windows or OS X to Linux.
On the one hand, Asus and Acer have both decided to pre-load their netbooks with “easy” versions of their preferred Linux distributions. Users are greeted with a series of large easy to understand buttons and menus for launching internet, office, and other apps. But installing new applications or even keeping software up to date is much trickier.
I don’t see why Asus, Acer, Dell, MSI, and other companies offering Linux netbooks don’t include a short instruction manual in the box explaining some of the differences between Linux and Windows and providing a list of basic commands for whatever Linux distribution you’re using. There should also be help pages on the manufacturer website and/or links to community resources like Ubuntu.com and the Ubuntu Forums.