Linux Netbooks: back to the facts

Posted on Wednesday, June 24, 2009 by Erlik

There has been a lot of talk about the success or failure of the Linux netbooks recently, to the point that it is now a very controversial topic. I think that it is time to go back to the facts and perform an objective analysis of the Linux netbook market. You will see that Linux netbooks have been neither a complete success nor a complete failure.

Fact 1: Linux netbooks sell well online but badly in "brick and mortar" shops

The first lesson that I take home from the Linux netbook story is that if the online market is more than ready for Linux machines, the "brick and mortar" shops are not. Dell is reporting nice sales of it's Ubuntu based Inspiron Mini online with about a third of the machines sold featuring Linux, but Linux based machines have not had much success offline. In France Linux based netbooks have left the store shelves but are still widely sold online. The explanation provided was that users shopping online are better educated and actually knew what their were buying. Many shoppers in "Brick and Mortar" shops were actually expecting the Linux machines to work like Windows and to run Windows software, leading to disappointments and returns.

Fact 2: 60% of consumers don't see the difference between a netbook and notebook

A recent study has shown an amazing fact: most consumers can not see the difference between a notebook and a netbook. In my opinion this is because modern Windows netbooks look and behave too much like mini laptops, a fact that I have been pointing out already. This has not been good for the Linux netbook market or even for Microsoft who is losing a lot of money on cheap Windows licenses. Many consumer expected that netbooks could replace full PCs and perform all the tasks of a Windows desktop. This resulted many of those consumers to be disappointed, as the machines are designed as companion devices to a desktop PC, not replacement for it. This has in turn led many PC manufacturers to increase the specifications (and price) of most netbooks in an attempt to satisfy these customers.

Fact 3: Linux fare well on flash based netbooks, badly on HDD based ones

Most of the Linux netbooks models that have met with success feature an SSD instead of an HDD. One of the reasons is that Windows XP does not perform very well on a cheap SSD (Windows 7 will not either) while Linux does. The problem is that SSD based netbooks do not have the preference of the buying public. The main reason is fact 2 here above: most consumers actually buy netbook machines as small laptops and expect them to feature an HDD and a lot of local storage. Again SSD based netbooks have encountered success with educated users that are aware of their advantages in term of power consumption, shock resistance and portability, but not with the general public.

Fact 4: most netbook users want the option of a desktop interface

Another issue caused by fact 2 is that most netbooks users want to be able to switch easily to a full desktop interface. Don't get me wrong, simplified interfaces like Ubuntu netbook remix are great for on-the-go usage, but if the user connects his netbook to a keyboard, mouse and external screen to use it as a fixed machine the easy interface can really get in the way. The most frequently asked question about the Eee PC 's Xandros distribution is probably "How do I switch to advanced mode?" Initial Linux efforts on the netbook failed to recognize that the machines would often be used as normal computer and didn't offer an easy enough way to switch to the traditional desktop interface.

Conclusions

The main lesson to be learned from the current state of the netbook market is that although errors have been made Linux is doing quite well in a netbook-as-companion-device usage scenario, but unfortunately most netbooks are used as notebooks or desktop replacement machines. This was not anticipated by the netbook manufacturers or the developers of Linux netbook distributions and is causing numerous issues. The main problem is linked to customer education: nobody told salesmen and consumers what a netbook actually was and how it was designed to be used, leading to unrealistic expectations. There is still a market for traditional SSD based netbooks in which Linux can shine, but it is much smaller than what is currently considered as "the netbook market", and not many "netbook" manufacturers are releasing new machines for this market segment.

Most PC manufacturers are currently focusing on improving the usability of netbooks as desktop replacement machines by adding larger screens, roomier HDDs and inflated price tags instead of developing true innovative netbooks. Often this involves replacing Linux with Windows XP, as the public expects Windows to be installed for this type of usage scenario. This shift is helped by the fact that Microsoft is practically giving XP away for free. There are however a lot of opportunities in the near future for next generation Linux distributions on the netbooks, smartbooks and mini PCs. I'll cover these in an article next week: 3 paths to a bright future

Read more in the netbooks category

Picture cc by magicfab

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11 Responses to "Linux Netbooks: back to the facts":

aidan says:

Good article.
Acer didn't do a bad job at making a Linux netbook with a fast boot and full out-of-the-box functionality but at the price of crippling xfce and making it impossible to install certain software packages.
Dell have done a much better job with the Mini 9 and 10. Ubuntu is slick and fast - full-screen video playback is flawless even with Compiz-fusion and Cairo-dock and the netbooks have a lovely heft and feel.
I suspect MS have been strong-arming OEMs into restricting Linux offerings to SSD netbooks. They don't want to have to give Windows 7 away for free or for cheap, as they would have to do in order to compete on the same hardware.

MKx says:

Nice summary.

I think another important reason is that they included uncommon distributions that's not widely used or supported. If they picked Ubuntu as a base for example, the online community presence would have made a lot of things easier for many users. This actually could even solve point 4, as you can select Standard Ubuntu or NetbookRemix on logon screen easily.

Anonymous says:

I found this article to incite FUD and filled with half baked premises...here are some points:


Fact 1: Linux netbooks sell well online but badly in "brick and mortar" shops

could this possibly have anything to do with Microsoft's strong-arm techniques with retail chains and manufacturers? You overlook the fact that there is no such thing as a free-market and that it is based on corporate manipulation and marketing dollars

In my opinion this is because modern Windows netbooks look and behave too much like mini laptops.

didn't Microsoft install a partially crippled version of Vista on netbooks?
and then rethink this strategy when people balked at this?

Fact 3: Linux fare well on flash based netbooks, badly on HDD based ones

then you go on to say:

'Most of the netbooks models that have met with success feature an SSD instead of an HDD. One of the reasons is that Windows XP does not perform very well on a cheap SSD (Windows 7 will not either) while Linux does.'


you see the illogic that these two statements create when taken together, right?

Don't get me wrong, simplified interfaces like Ubuntu netbook remix are great for on-the-go usage, but if the user connects his netbook to a keyboard, mouse and external screen to use it as a fixed machine the easy interface can really get in the way.

you go on to say:

'Initial Linux efforts on the netbook failed to recognize that the machines would often be used as normal computer and didn't offer an easy enough way to switch to the traditional desktop interface.'


the initial Linux efforts failed? do you have data to back this up?

also, the Dell Ubuntu 8.04 LTS UI is most certainly able to be used with a mouse and keyboard with little effort -- unless you are computer challenged


sorry but your article reeks of the same misinformed nonsense Micrsoft has been pushing lately

Grant Wagner says:

I not only agree with your "Fact 2" but I wholy support the concept. My netbook IS my desktop replacement, just like my previous. I DO have a fairly large HD with lots of data, including my complete music library, select movies, more games than I can count, and a complete Debian repository mirror. It IS my complete desktop replacement, leaving my desktop only for intense gaming (and sadly, almost moving me back to windows only -_-).

Any one who believes that a netbook isn't a small formfactor full fledged laptop is simply wrong. Anyone who says it shouldn't be, is trying to push his wrong opinions around.

Jacques Merde says:

@Grant Wagner

Speak for yourself, but don't assume that your opinions apply to everyone. They certainly don't apply to me and my netbook usage. If you prefer a small form factor notebook, just say so.

JohnBauley39 says:

@Anonymous

The bad retail angle is a valid one. And one that does not have to have Microsoft's greasy fingerprints all over it.

From the retailer's point of view, Linux is a bad product in comparison to Windows.

Bricks and mortar computer buyers fall into one of two camps.

1) Those in a hurry. They want a PC to replace one that has just died in a hurry. Not too fussy about the bundle, not going to shop around for the best deal. Cheap is good.

2) The know nothing buyer. These are the most common, and think that they will get a better deal if they can inspect the PC before buying, even though they haven't the faintest idea what they are looking at. Ever wondered why bricks and mortar shops tend to sell with big monitors, big hard drives, but low memory and pretty poor software bundles? Because these things are good attention grabbers. And for someone looking for a "good deal" these will swing it. They don't have a clue what they want, so they take the sales person's suggestions, and pay through the nose for a mediocre rig. Sometimes that will be a Linux netbook for someone who has no idea what Linux is, and no idea how to use it. Bad idea. Almost sure to get a return when they find they need to do some reading to learn how to use it, and that it will not play their collection of Windows games.

From the shop's point of view, no virus scanners to sell, no extra software, no printer, scanner, webcam.. And they would have to invest in more training to get the sales people up to speed to filter the good prospective buyers for Linux. Not to mention the fact that they will not have the bi annual virus removal party with each customer.

Despite Microsoft's rather insecure "we own 95% of the netbook market declaration, it was only for American direct retail sales. In other words, it carefully ignored the on-line sales. Which tells more about how well Linux is doing there. Lets face it.. If Microsoft actually did a realistic survey, which I would be surprised if they didn't, then the Linux figures would be several points higher than they are usually quoted at. And as Linux doesn't need to astroturf, isn't it comforting to know how much we scare them.

I can go to any of the major computer websites here in the UK, and get my choice of Linux netbooks at a moment's notice. With or without hard drives, and in all screen sizes. And if Dell is anything to go by, then Linux on netbooks may not be dominant, but who cares. Enough Linux netbooks are being sold to prove that there is a market. That is what matters to the hardware OEMs. Not some willy waving exercise between Microsoft's PR people and the Linux community.

Erlik says:

@ Anonymous
About fact one, there could indeed be some strong arm tactics by Microsoft involved at some level, but the impression I get is that the impulse to drop Linux on netbooks comes from retailer themselves. When Asus stopped selling Linux netbooks in the French Brick and mortar channel the reason they provided was that a lot of consumer bought the machines without knowing what they were getting, exactly as JohnBauley39 explained. It is a problem that do not exist in the case of online shopping.

About fact 3: I meant "most of the LINUX netbook models that have mean with success feature an SSD", I will clarify in the article.

About fact 4: Xandros and Linpus failed to provide an easy way for non Linux users to switch to a traditional desktop interface. It is something that has been fixed by distributions like Ubuntu netbook remix.

Anonymous says:

I have two netbooks: the original Xandros eeePC and a Dell Ubuntu Mini 1210. I use the eeePC for its intended purpose, which is a lightweight web terminal whereas I use the Dell Mini 1210 more like a laptop. The Mini 1210 has 60 Gb of hard drive and 1 GB of RAM, which is sufficient to run Windows XP inside a virtual machine.

Anonymous says:

I have to completely disagree with Fact 3. I have an Acer Aspire One with a 160 Gig HDD running Linux Mint 7. It runs so well I use it for 95% of my Daily PC-ing.

Anonymous says:

A co-worker recently bought a Dell laptop with Linux installed because he could get it at a reduced price. He then removed Linux and installed XP. We work for a university and get MS software for free. That's a rather unusual but real-world example of how Linux can save money for PC users.

Shannon VanWagner says:

Glad to see that someone is talking about it.

Has Linux failed on the Netbook? Absolutely not. This is why, a.) if you look at Dell Mini netbooks today - both models have a "Customize with Ubuntu" option (and on the Dell mini 12, Ubuntu Linux is the DEFAULT operating system when buying), b.)I just went to Target today - and I saw the EeePc - two of them - one with Xandros Linux, and the other with Windows XP, and c.)Linux on the netbook is doing well enough that now you can even buy an HP netbook with the "Mi" operating system, which is based on Ubuntu Linux.

So all this nonsense about Linux "failing" on the netbook is just a marketing tactic, otherwise why would all these major companies be selling Linux still?

Here's what's important - The Linux Netbook Sales NEED TO BE REPORTED ACCURATELY. This is because technology companies(i.e., everything from web-based services, to software applications, to computer peripherals, and computer hardware) need to know NOT to tailor their services ONLY to the Windows platform.

Promoting open and cross-platform standards usage, this is a VERY important factor in all of us computer users being able to have a choice in what operating system we want to use.

As the people who pay for this technology, WE MUST STAND UP and DEMAND that products and services (web-based or whatever) ARE NOT MSFT-CENTRIC! Don't be sold into a closed platform by supporting vendors who are only willing to use that platform!

Put your foot down consumers!! Demand more!!

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