Netbook Linux at a Crossroads: Page 2

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Normally, remembering settings would be a good thing, but in this case it remembered a bad setting. Most PCs today would know not to retain settings for something unless it worked at least once. But the Asus Eee PC just kept trying and failing.

It took a few moments, but I figured out where the settings were and reset the encryption to WPA. This seems like a brain-dead easy thing for a Linux maven—and many would call it user error (despite the fact that I did it on purpose). And it’s just one small example. But it’s the kind of thing that can frustrate someone who has never used Linux before, since Macs and PCs sort out wireless encryption automatically these days.

It’s one thing for a new Linux user to fire up a browser and check Gmail, or create a new document in OpenOffice and begin working—especially with the slick, well organized UIs that come with some netbooks like the Asus Eee PC I tested. Just about anyone can do those tasks within minutes.

But it’s another thing to figure out why a Linux system isn’t synchronizing properly with a digital camera or external DVD drive. Even simple tasks like listing the contents of a folder, listening to an MP3 track, or installing a new program are different. As I said in a previous article, “The Netbook OS Question: Windows XP vs. Linux,” none of these things are necessarily difficult, but they’re all completely different from what mainstream users expect.

Most things that aren’t working right on Linux can be solved with a trip to Google or some of the various Linux forums. But that’s also why Linux isn’t right for a lot of mainstream users.

There’s no desire to become part of an online community that’s dedicated to the OS itself. Most computer users today haven’t seen a command prompt since the late 1980s or early 1990s; many haven’t seen one at all.

Average folks don’t look at PCs the way a software engineer does. It has nothing to do with intelligence or laziness, despite what some of the more fervent Linux supports may insinuate. Instead, mainstream users buy personal computers to get work done, or to stay in touch with their friends, or to do myriad other tasks. Not everyone changes their car’s oil on their own, either.

On the other hand, many people who decide to stick with Linux end up falling in love with the OS. And there’s nothing important you can’t do with a Linux netbook these days, now that more tasks take place online through Web browsers than ever before.

In the end, there needs to be some way for developers to continue improving drivers and polishing user interfaces that work across multiple distributions. All of the right parts underneath the UI have been there for years. It’s the end-user experience that still has room for improvement.

Rather than looking at it as if Linux has failed, consider that it has already achieved 20 percent of current netbook shipments.

It did start with 100 percent due to the original 7-inch Asus Eee PC, so the percentage trend is heading downward. But by the end of 2009, that’s still seven million Linux-powered netbooks that weren’t on the market a year ago—ones that in almost all cases didn’t replace an existing Linux machine.

Overall, it’s not a bad start for an OS that many people had written off for desktop use years ago.

Looking to buy a netbook? Be sure to read Datamation’s comparison of six of the latest models before you make your decision.

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

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