Netbook Linux at a Crossroads

The mixed reactions Linux-based netbooks generate among mainstream users are not an indication of failure -- they’re a learning opportunity for developers.
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Much has been written about how Linux is an optimal OS for a lightweight netbook. And netbooks themselves are on a tear: ABI Research is projecting that 35 million will be shipped in 2009, and estimates that number to increase to a stunning 139 million by 2013—not bad for a category of PC that no one heard of 18 months ago.

But some buyers of Linux netbooks are running into trouble. MSI’s recent return rates – four times that of Windows XP models – and the recent controversial story of a woman who couldn’t do required classwork because she couldn’t run required software on her Linux netbook indicate that, at the very least, there’s a learning curve for the average user.

That brings up a good question: just how realistic is Linux on a netbook for mainstream computer buyers?

From one angle, it makes perfect sense—especially when compared to the complex, quasi-compatible handhelds and PDAs that have littered the tech industry landscape over the past 20 years. Plus, there’s still plenty of potential to refine Linux-based netbooks further.

On the other hand, as netbooks become more powerful, they’ll become more capable of running operating systems that require a larger memory, CPU, and hard disk footprint (be it Windows XP, or even Vista, Windows 7, or Mac OS X). As a result—and here’s the worrisome part—the door to mainstream Linux adoption could begin to close.

Here’s why: one of Linux’s greatest strengths—its open source design—also remains its greatest weakness. Dozens of distributions, each with different user interfaces, software bundles, and other characteristics, are on the market. That problem is beginning to hit netbooks, as each major manufacturer chooses a build and sticks with it—or improves it on its own, creating yet more variations.

That’s not necessarily bad, but let me explain why it’s a problem and not a feature. For all their well-documented flaws, Windows PCs and Macs have ironed out all sorts of weird UI glitches and incompatibilities over the years, things that pop up only after lots of people use them constantly. Plus, most people are already familiar with the way those two systems work (well, at least one of them, if not both). And they’ve grown to expect certain interface conventions.

For example, while writing this article, I tested an Asus Eee PC 1000 out of the box with an eye toward a new user’s experience. Overall, the machine ran really well. As with other netbooks I’ve tried, I enjoyed using the built-in StarOffice document editing suite, the Stellarium planetarium software, and the various other education and entertainment-themed apps.

Even watching videos on Hulu worked fine as long as I didn’t run them in full screen mode (which was a bit much for the hardware)—and there is the obvious benefit of not needing an Internet security suite to protect against Windows-based malware and viruses.

Anyone who’s used to powering up a new Windows XP or Vista machine for the first time, only to spend hours or days either cleaning out crapware or installing their own software, would be pleasantly surprised by the robust software bundle included with netbooks like this one.

The Nitty-Gritty of Netbook Linux

One glitch up front, however, was indicative of the kinds of problems mainstream buyers may have with Linux netbooks.

The machine found my WPA-encrypted network instantly, but misidentified it as WEP. Wanting to see what would happen, I keyed in my password anyway, which didn’t work (obviously)—but then the machine stopped asking me for a password, even when I tried to connect again.

Next Page: Are mainstream users up for Linux?

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux desktop, netbooks, handhelds

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