Linux Netbook Returns: Not Surprising, but Likely Avoidable

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 06, 2008

Laptop Magazine talked to MSI's Director of US Sales, Andy Tung about the future of netbooks. Tung discussed future netbook sales and releases -- and presented the statistic that Linux-based netbooks are four times more likely to be returned.

jkOnTheRun reasons that this isn't terribly surprising. Considering the low price of Linux netbooks, and their rarity at larger retailers that might allow new users to "kick the tires," it seems that many new users leap, then look.

The return rate of Linux netbooks is pertinent to both netbook manufacturers and Linux users, and is not limited to FOSS acceptance -- or the bottom line.

There are a few things to note, before continuing. MSI's Wind is not available with Linux as a pre-installed operating system in the United States -- yet. A Linux option is planned -- or maybe the correct phrase would be "has been in the works for a very long time." It was announced previously that the Wind would run a modified version of Novell's SUSE Linux, but Tung has indicated that this is not set in stone.

Tung states that netbook return rates are higher than traditional notebook returns in general, and that the operating system plays a significant role. He says it is something ASUS has struggled with. He also stated that many big box retailers are hesitant to stock netbooks in stores, because they might cut into sales of higher priced notebooks.

I don't think there's anything untrue about Tung's assessment at face value. I would imagine there are more than a few who have purchased Linux netbooks for specific tasks, thinking, "How different can it be?" Some might discover it suits them fine, but others might not have anticipated they couldn't run their company's proprietary application -- the application unique to their company, its goals, and their job duties -- the one that only runs on Windows. I also think it's possible a lot of netbooks come back due to screen resolutions not being quite what was expected, or keyboards being uncomfortably cramped.

Presentation is everything.

More netbooks -- Linux, or otherwise -- in "standard" retail outlets could reduce the return rate, if only because buyers could see, feel, and try out, even just briefly, the hardware and the software. The product is tangible, the software is right there, and the abstract idea of "Linux" is given a solid form.

The default "Easy Mode" Xandros interface on the Eee is distinctive -- and no potential buyer who had ever used Windows or Mac would mistake it for those systems. It might not seem like Linux either, but it should be enough that a potential buyer will recognize that this is different, and explore further.

Presentation includes considering target markets. I have an EeePC 701, and with the default Easy Mode Xandros loaded, it is difficult to imagine that ASUS dreamed of selling it to any other market than school aged children. For this market, this interface is quite friendly and sufficient. But it likely isn't the most lucrative market.

Naturally, other distributions work nicely on these machines, but it isn't what ASUS intended. Consumers liked the idea, adapted the netbooks, and some, alas, were disappointed.

My household also harbors a Wind. Yes, a netbook, but clearly not an Eee, and clearly geared toward a different buyer demographic. The specs, the look -- it has a different target market. Is it one that wouldn't find Linux useful? That's debatable, but the distribution's presentation would need to be vastly different than that of the Eee. The Linux Wind would need to be displayed in physical stores, perhaps, for many to see, and understand, the differences -- and ultimately decide which works better in their situation.

Tung doesn't indicate that MSI is abandoning Linux on their netbooks, just that they're thinking further about what would reduce the return rate. Linux test drives, whether they come from fooling with store floor models, or virtual desktop demos on retailer/manufacturer sites, could be key in offering buyers the operating system that is the best fit, without great risk or expense to manufacturers and retailers.