Netbooks and Linux: A Complicated Story

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Over the past few days there's been a raft of stories about how the Linux netbook market share is not as healthy as it used to be.

Up until now it's been believed that the emerging netbook market (arguably the first new PC hardware platform for decades) has been sewn-up almost entirely by various varieties of Linux. However, it seems the truth is that Linux netbooks see far more returns than their Windows equivalents, and--according to research firm NPD--about 96% of netbooks sold recently ran Windows. Needless to say, a Microsoft employee has been gloating about this.

As always, the truth of the situation is more complicated. This isn't a software issue, as Microsoft-loving commentators would like you to believe, although that's certainly an element.

To understand why, let's take the point of view of an average computer user. He/she doesn't entirely understand how computers work, but they know how to do the things they like. They want to play music, and movies. They want to grab their e-mail (probably from a Web mail provider), and check FaceBook or MySpace. They want to watch funny movies on YouTube, and visit other Flash-oriented sites. To them, a computer is a tool to get a job done. It isn't an end in itself. Any time spent hacking things into shape, or messing around, is time wasted.

When such a person purchases a Linux netbook, they face two hurdles. The first hurdle is provided by the software. The second hurdle is provided by the hardware, which is often awkward to use. The key point is that it's a combination of the two that causes them to reject the netbook.

Their first impression of Linux may be positive. Most Linuxes that run on netbooks include toolbar-based launchers, and most are pretty neat. But when the user starts the browser, things change. Nothing looks right. The fonts will probably look wrong, maybe causing the page layout to be skewed a little. Our hypothetical user might not be aware of such specific differences. They might not know what a font is. But they know that things don't look right.

Never mind, says our user. I can get used to that, so he/she ploughs onto FaceBook and/or MySpace. Ah. There are lots of empty squares where Flash ads, animations, or movies usually appear. No music starts playing when they visit their friend's MySpace page. There might even be scary error messages.

Never mind this. They can fix that later, and most of the text/image content is visible. Instead, they load up a movie onto a USB pen drive, leap into the car for a long journey, and try to play the movie on their netbook. Oh. It won't work. More scary error messages.

Is this thing broken?

Now at this point, a wise user will hit Google and find instructions on how to fix their problems. Sadly, these instructions are usually complicated. Often deliberately so, because some of the people who write them like to express their machismo by creating inordinately complicated tutorials. Recently I read a tutorial describing how to get a Wi-Fi card working on a notebook that recommended compiling new driver modules. The solution I discovered, without much effort, was to install a new package and tweak a config file in a very minor way. My solution took seconds. The former solution was around 20 steps and frankly scary.

Additionally, when our user complains about their experiences, expressing the anger they feel, Linux zealots trample them into the dust. There is zero tolerance for aggressive newbies in the community, and there's a caste system of expert users that must be respected. (For what it's worth, this is one of the reasons I write my books.)

Although quite a few people will balk at the instructions describing how to get everything working, a surprising number will plough on. This is heartening, of course. Slowly but surely, our user will get things up and running.

The trouble is that the story doesn't end there. At the same time, the new user has to cope with annoying hardware--miniature keyboards, for example, that make typing hard, and require you to re-train yourself. They have to cope with tiny screens that make it hard to view Web sites properly. Outright slow performance can be an issue, such as I experienced on the hopelessly underpowered Dell Mini 9, where I can run my mouse cursor up and down menus, and see the highlight trail behind.

Hardware problems were much more pronounced with the first wave of netbooks. I had one of the very first Asus Eee netbooks shortly after its release and it's hardware design meant it was borderline unusable. My hands ached if I typed for more than five minutes. In the end I sold it--I too rejected a Linux netbook.

What happens is that the software problems presented by Linux, combined with the hardware problems presented by smaller computers, push users over the edge. Pretty soon they've just had enough. They return their netbooks, and write off the concept as a bad idea.

If Windows is installed on their netbook, the user has a far easier ride. This isn't due to superior software. Far from it. This is quite simply because the software side of things is more familiar. They (or somebody they know) will be able to fix-up the software side of things in a jiffy with just a few downloads. They just haven't got to worry about that side of things.

This makes the hardware issues seem less insurmountable. They're still a pain, but just not as bad as it is with an unfamiliar and borderline non-functional set of software. The user isn't pushed over the edge.

What's the solution? To be honest, I don't think there is one. For all kinds of reasons, it's legally questionable to supply proprietary components preinstalled on Linux netbooks. Ubuntu's solution of downloading such components on-demand is probably best, but right now you'll only find Ubuntu on Dell netbooks. And anyway, none of this will help make the operating system more familiar, and people may still find that the stumbling blocks presented by the software too much when the hardware annoyances are taken into consideration.

Once again Microsoft's monopoly means Windows is swallowing up another market, but this time Linux might just be a little guilty too. However, it's impossible to point the finger of blame.

Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.

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