ASUS CEO Says Linux Netbook Returns On Par With Windows
In October, MSI's Director of US Sales delivered an interesting statistic that Linux netbooks were returned four times more often than Windows versions. It didn't seem, perhaps, an unreasonable number, but it was a bit ambiguous what data it was pulled from. I had speculated it was perhaps a market-wide number, pulled from other netbook manufacturers (and incorporating MSI's sales data on Linux netbooks internationally, as a Linux version of the Wind has not yet been released in the US).
Apparently that wasn't the case. I just came across a Laptop Magazine interview from late last month with ASUS CEO Jerry Shen. Shen says four million EeePC netbooks have been sold this year, with models offering pre-installed Windows versions rolling out in the later quarters. He says ASUS has found the return rates for the Linux and Windows models are similar. He also said that Linux has been quite popular in the European market.
While Shen doesn't give exact numbers, and MSI's US Sales Director Andy Tung's figure is also short on details, I don't think either is wildly misrepresenting what their respective companies are seeing.
Why is that? Two reasons, I think, that are so closely tied into each other it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins: Distribution configuration, and audience.
I think Shen lends some weight to this theory when he explains why ASUS is designing an "Easy Mode" interface for Windows EeePCs:
The Easy Mode on Windows XP is very similar to the one on the Xandros operating system. For the novice and for the person who doesn’t know how to use the computer, Easy Mode is better.
ASUS chose a market for the Eee, and optimized the Xandros installation to the point of childlike simplicity. It was largely targeted as an option for children, but was useful enough for adults who might not just be intimidated by Linux -- but by computers.
Another member of my household has a Wind that runs XP. If I put aside the whole operating system idea for a moment, and just look at the Wind, the presentation of the machine, the accompanying documentation (or surprising lack thereof), and even the packaging -- it is not designed for the same type of computer user.
Don't misunderstand me, the Wind is a well laid out, actually beautifully designed piece of hardware. It's a netbook by size, and name, but it feels like a notebook crammed into a netbook's body. It works for business travel and school work that it was initially purchased for. And while the heft of the manual that accompanied my Eee was surprising, so was the lack of an even vaguely useful quick start guide for the Wind.
This difference illustrates two very different approaches to the market, and might be why Linux is holding its own for one line of products, and isn't faring so well for the other. I have not seen MSI's Linux deployment (originally the US version was to run a commercially supported, customized SuSE edition, but Tung has said that's now undecided). I'm willing to venture that if the Linux offering was as light on help resources as its XP counterpart, and was much more complicated than the Eee's Xandros "Easy Mode," some returns must have stemmed not only from intimidation, but from the frustration of being presented a learning curve of indeterminate size and nowhere to even begin to find help.
ASUS certainly hasn't got the formula flawlessly worked out, nor has MSI completely leveled the lab with its initial Linux experiments. ASUS has done reasonably well identifying the needs and catering to an audience with a limited level of Linux -- and computing -- experience, and it will need to build and branch from there.
For MSI, the path isn't so clear. MSI seems to have, at this point, at least, a difficult user base to generalize, and market to. The Wind is netbook, but it's a complicated netbook, and seems to lend itself to more experienced computer users, who are, most likely, already familiar with Windows. It doesn't mean Linux has failed on these netbooks, or that it can't work for a number of new Wind owners. But perhaps the appeal of netbooks isn't necessarily that "it just works" but that "all that it does" is laid out quite clearly before the user.
Does Linux have to be a consistent presentation of "Easy Mode" to be appealing on netbooks? I don't think so. But new netbook owners need to see its strengths, and how simple it is to get the most out of it -- on the desktop, surely, but also through at least some supplied documentation.