Linux on Netbooks, Caveats and Cautionary Tales

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 05, 2009

I purchased my ASUS EeePC 701 just over a year ago, when the Eee was just about the only netbook on the market, and netbooks came with Windows XP drivers, but not with Windows pre-installed. As I live in an urban area that boasts a techie population (near Cambridge, Massachusetts), I was, even a year ago, able to walk into a retail store to look at, try, and purchase the little machine. It was inexpensive, it ran Linux, and that was more than enough for me.

At Tectonic, Nic Ludick wonders if this isn't actually a bad thing in the long run for boosting Linux adoption. I can't say as I agree with his implication that retailers using Linux netbooks for their personal financial gain is terribly horrific -- retailers are in the business of selling things for a profit. He does, however, make some valid points on Linux in a retail sales environment.

From Ludick's piece, I am gathering that retail electronics stores in South Africa, where Tectonic is based, operate differently than they do in the States. The two lamentable points Ludick makes that transcend geographical location: sales people aren't informed enough about Linux to help customers make a wise decision (in either direction) about their purchase, and this in turn makes it harder for the retailer to advise to customer where to get support, if it is required.

In some way, I want to give salespeople an out -- or at least argue that the gentleman I saw explaining the Eee to an elderly couple at my local retailer did almost as sloppy a job explaining the Windows based machines. The couple asked very general questions -- Can we get our Gmail? Can we send pictures from our digital camera? It was just as much the subtle, non-platform specific differences between machines that had the salesman's head spinning. That being said, he couldn't do the Eee justice (and it seemed as though, hearing the story unfold, it would have worked wonderfully for this couple).

The floor model Eee had been modified from the standard Easy Mode (perhaps by a customer), and this obviously threw the salesman. It also meant he couldn't figure out how to reconnect it to the wireless network, and therefore couldn't prove to the couple it actually was able to get online. He also had some difficulties explaining what software was, or wasn't, included in any given Windows-based notebook the store sold. I don't fault the salesman entirely -- hardware changes rapidly, different manufacturers include different trial versions of select Windows applications, and this retailer stocks many different notebook options. Couple that with the fact that he's probably paid rather modestly for his work -- he doesn't have much incentive to keep up on the pecularities of all the machines.

Ludick is spot on that this salesman couldn't explain the Linux machine properly, and in this case, it actually prevented this couple from purchasing a less expensive netbook that likely would have worked quite well for them.

Support is a confusing area, at least here in the States. I would dare say that support issues happen as frequently with new Windows netbooks as new Linux ones, but when Windows and peripherals don't play well, it's simply accepted or otherwise worked around. When Linux, being the radically different part of the computing equation for most, doesn't play well with peripherals, it's more likely to be mentioned (or even result in a returned netbook). ASUS included information on obtaining support on several documents packed with the Eee, just as any larger, "household-name" computer supplier would do. Most retailers won't offer support if a machine is under manufacturer warranty, and software issues are nearly never tackled by a local retailer.

It would be wonderful to see salespeople with a better grasp of the Linux-powered machines they sell, just as it would be great to see customers purchase a machine because the features, functions, and price point are reasonable. Inexpensive is a big draw, and it's just as much an opportunity for salespeople to "upsell" as it is a customer will take the cheaper machine home and be confounded by it.

It involves education -- for salespeople, and customers. Netbooks with pre-installed Linux distributions have, for the most part, done a great job at keeping presentation, use, and maintenance simple. Linux may not be right for everyone, even if they're using a netbook as a secondary machine. Judging from what I've seen, however, it seems that more people are talked into purchasing pricier products that don't fit their needs. Is this hurting Linux adoption? Yes, it is -- not because customers try it and become frustrated, but because they never get the chance to really see what it can do.