Are Consumers Getting Mixed Messages About Linux Netbooks?

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 09, 2008

Recently, there's been a lot of noise regarding Linux netbooks -- from how well the devices have sold to the return rates. Sam mentioned in a post that reasonable expectations need to be set for netbooks.

I agree with Sam on this point (which applies to more than netbooks, when it's fully considered). These machines are designed for basic tasks, not to serve as a complete office substitute when traveling.

In the last few days, I've begun to wonder if Linux based netbooks are having to fight another battle -- messages from the media and retailers seem at odds.

There it is again: the "Linux is intimidating" argument. Truthfully, this argument doesn't always bother me, because any new operating system can be intimidating. Depending on your familiarity with computers in general, and how adventurous you are with technology, it can be (without a doubt) intimidating.

This statement irks me when it is used to describe the EeePC Xandros configuration. When I purchased my Eee, the first thing I did was enable the advanced desktop settings. I have used Linux for many years, so this isn't too surprising. However, the Easy Mode desktop, whether the layout annoys or helps you, is nothing if not straightforward. The icons and applications located under their respective "purpose" tabs do what they claim to, and because it is a different procedure to "get under the hood" on the Eee, new users don't have to live in fear that mis-pressed key combinations will activate some secret Linux "self-destruct" sequence.

It seems that as some newer Linux users get their sea legs on the Eee, they make the move to the advanced desktop. I saw this more often on dedicated Eee forums than I expected. The main point is that they don't have to -- the machine works out of the box without a fuss.

Unfortunately, (and my apologies to Hiawatha Bray at the Boston Globe for singling his piece out, as he's by no means the first or only tech reporter to say this) it seems no matter how simply the interface is presented, the fact that it's Linux underneath deems the whole device as intimidating (or difficult, or user-unfriendly). The consumer needs to know what's powering the computer, surely. I need to know when I am buying a smart phone if it's running Android, or Windows Mobile, or Palm. However, it's more relevant to what I need the device to do than if I'll be able to figure out how to use it.

I know there have to be some who have written about netbooks that have at least seen the Xandros Easy Mode interface. Indeed, some of the Linux netbook return rates were attributed to these devices being purchased without the consumer being able to test drive the device.

Two days ago, I came across an end cap display at a major US department store adorned with two EeePCs (the smaller 701 series that come with Xandros pre-installed), and a good deal of information as to what these strange little creatures were. The screens were covered with a sticker illustrating the Easy Mode layout. It wouldn't have been my preference for showing people what's there, and how it all works, but it clearly illustrated the idea that the machine isn't threatening, intimidating or difficult to use.

The actual presentation of this netbook may jar with what consumers have read, but seeing is believing. Perhaps more visibility of these netbooks -- and not just the Linux versions -- will give those considering a netbook more information to find the right model for them (and whether a netbook will meet their needs in the first place).