Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Linux Lost the Netbook War

Designed for Windows XP computer hardware logoImage via Wikipedia
The only netbook running Linux on is the EEE 901, sitting at #19. The war is over, folks.

Why did Linux lose? There are four big factors:
  1. Migration: Netbooks have quickly moved from their intended purpose (appliances) into extremely low-cost notebooks. Screens went from 7" to 10". SSDs became HDs. 256 - 512MB RAM became 1GB. Prices went from $199 to $500. People expect all the same functionality from these new machines as they do of their normal notebooks, and that requires Windows software. XP wins through the network effect.
  2. Poor promotion: Linux netbooks were never promoted in stores or evenly reviewed by tech journals. Those located in stores were always the "cheap" option with lower spec'ed hardware. Salespeople didn't understand how to promote the Linux systems. Reviewers tended to ding the Linux models for not having XP. XP wins through a premium image.
  3. Poor education: Consumers often weren't aware that what they were buying wasn't a notebook and wasn't intended to run random software. They went home, opened the box, and were unpleasantly surprised. XP wins due to ubiquity.
  4. Poor OEMing: OEMs didn't do their job -- they supplied machines which weren't completely functional out of the box. They didn't tune. They didn't test. They sold machines without wireless drivers. There were sleep/resume issues. The distributions provided were crippled. All of these things would have been easy to fix (and they were in the XP models), but the Linux models got little to no engineering effort. The only Linux models still selling well are Asus EEEs. Asus put a lot of effort into their custom distro. wins through adequate engineering from the OEMs.
I said that Windows 7 will kill Linux on the netbook. Win7 will be too late to do any more damage and Linux will continue to sell 5-10%. Android and ARM netbooks still hold promise, but the chances are slim.



Who declared the "war" over? As long as netbooks are selling, no matter what OS is loaded, the war is still on.


Well, for all intents and purposes, it really is over. Linux notebooks have settled into the share that they're likely to keep. Call it a stand off at this point, then. MS has the remaining Linux soldiers cornered in the highly-defensible mountains.

My point was not so much that it's over (which it is, in my opinion), and will never start again (which I hope it will with Android and ARM), but that some MAJOR mistakes were made in the marketing of the product which basically doomed it.

I haven't used MS on my desktops for about ten years, so I'm pulling for the better hardware and website support that a larger market share would bring. We saw some of that this year.

Anonymous said...

May be it is time to stop blaiming the universe for not wanting to pay money for Linux PC???

May be it is time to get the fact that "Desktop Linux" is simply not good enough. When you stop denying the problem you jusy might come up with the solution


I agree that many of your points are factors in the demise of Linux on netbooks, but I disagree that they are the most important factors.

I've explained exactly what I think here:



I read your post, and agree with a lot of it. I think the "MS woke up and flexed its muscle" argument falls under my point #2 -- the machines aren't on shelves. Even the ones in stores didn't get promoted by the salespeople because they were unfamiliar.

The "John Smith wants to plug his camera in" argument just emphasizes my point that netbooks moved out of the appliance category and into the ultra-cheap laptop arena. Even modern Linux kernels can't compete with the camera, PMP, and printer capabilities of XP. Once people started wanting these things on their netbooks, the war was lost. I think that's the most important factor, and that's why it's my #1.

I completely agree that outdated software is a negative. OEMs really screwed the pooch on the software (my #4 ;) ).

Chilligan said...

People have invested time 'learning' to use Windows. For example, my parents can 'use' their windows machine for basic tasks but they don't realize how the actions they're taking are leading to the outcome on the screen... they've memorized the actions rather than understood what is really going on.

Pair this with poor communication of what OS these netbooks are even coming with leads to surprise/confusion/frustration when people get home... an issue they have no chance of overcoming despite the linux UI being fairly close to Windows. Their dependence on memorization prevents them from making the jump to managing simple tasks in linux.

My $0.02

Ben said...

I just bought a Dell Mini 9 with Ubuntu 8.04 pre-installed. It works great, no driver issues at all. This is our first Linux computer (other than playing with Live CDs once in a while), and I would recommend it for anyone, even beginners.


Just wait till they all get trashed with viruses and then you can buy them cheap, load your favorite Linux distro and have a real nice netbook. Right now they are just a fashion statement. Sort of a gateway drug to the Iphone if you will. Once the fad wears down, the wannabes will move on to the next shiny bobble. Besides, it's XP Home; the os Microsoft has already said is dying. And I doubt 7 will function very well with limited resources. It is Windows after all.


I agree with Anonymous. The first thing in finding a solution is realizing the problem. I simply think that the Linux options were marketed for the cheapest hardware, and since for most people this was their first experience with Linux they instantly associated poor usability with Linux.
Add to that the fact that people are more accustomed to the well known and ubiquitous XP, it became too complicated to explain for newcomers how to work with the machines (especially that they are already plagued with usability problems). I remember reading some article of an American student, who sued Dell (I think) for selling an Ubuntu Linux and not Win XP, and she claimed that she couldn't get anything to work and therefore was expelled from the university. Some people are not as adept at adapting :-)

To solve the problems I think that the main two things that are missing are:
1) Funding: Could Google do that to the Android? Only time will tell, but certainly funding is crucial here. All the extra engineering, testing, and quality assurance are things that cost money.
2) Engineering: A company that will invest in making the Linux based machines usable and appealing to the public (think for example how well Macs are selling just for their slick looks and UI). Most Linux distributions can have amazing UIs, based on Compiz or KDE4. However, they require a bit more than a low-end netbook hardware. I remember the astonished looks on people faces when I showed them the predecessor of Compiz and how well it ran on my old HP notebook (with less than a GB of RAM).

Therefore, I think that Linux needs some kind of backing from a rich organization. Currently, the only one with actual aspirations and funding looks like Google. However, will it still be the "open" and "free" Linux we all hope for or will it become a new type of Windows/OS X?


What war? Linux is not a company. It's not competing with Microsoft. Linux is an idea. It can't win and it can't lose. It can't go bankrupt and it can't get rich. No Linux user stands to benefit in any way from converting average computer users. That said:
"People expect all the same functionality... and that requires Windows software."
Ok, what can windows do that I can't do on Linux? My box does everything I can think of and it does it better. I can even sync my iPod better on Linux than I can in Windows (iTunes sucks).
Besides that you have valid points, but remember, Linux can't lose.



The war wasn't Linux's doing -- it was MS's. MS woke up and decided to eradicate Linux on the netbook. For all intents and purposes, they did that.

I'm a Free software advocate of over ten years, so I understand that Linux will never disappear, even from netbooks, but MS has driven Linux back to the same level as other forms -- the notebook and desktop.

Regarding your last paragraph, Linux doesn't run Windows' programs well. It doesn't handle all kinds of new consumer hardware well. It can't do anything about newer iPods (Touch +).

Linux lost its big opportunity. That doesn't mean that it disappears. It's just back to inching up .25% a year.

Anonymous said...

You just do not know what you are talking about, so I tell you: Linux is not good enough for all the people who want to use windows, because they have been taught that it is "computing". "Linux can not compete with windows when it comes to camera and printer" is about the most absurd statement ever said. In our research group we had a girl - graduate student of physics who never have used windows, only unix. She could not understand how anybody can use windows, such a confusing system. She had a degree in computational physics.

People will continue to use MS garbage as long they tell each other such stories as you do here. Basically everything from Redmond is of the songsmith quality and intellectual level (I hope you love songsmith)


Windows is a usability nightmare, but that wasn't my point.

If you think camera and printer support is better on Linux (actually, with libgphoto and CUPS) is near perfect, then I have news for you: it just isn't. You can verify this by going to http://openprinting.org and looking at the *140* Lexmark printers rated as paperweights or partially working. In fact, there are ten more paperweights than there are perfectly working ones. A little over half the models work well enough (mostly +).

Denying this situation is not the way to win someone to Linux use. They're just going to be disappointed when they try something sitting in their closets or buy something random from a store. The same goes for cameras or running Windows programs under Wine -- you'd better be damn careful what you buy.

Anonymous said...

Linux is great for the desktop. Has been for years. The problem is your average users which are stupid as shit.

These are the users you could plop on a kde4 linux computer and they'd just think it's vista.

Anonymous said...

The OEM's failed. The OEM's were bought (bribed, threatened etc) by Microsoft, this is why Linux on the netbooks failed. It is that simple. If the OEM's put as much effort on Linux as they do for Microsoft products, Linux on the netbooks would be a success. The local electrical retailer has a dozen netbooks, they are all Windows XP.


I was in a store where the salesman introduced a Linux based netbook to an older lady as "Microsoft Windows Linux". I cringed and just had to intervene...

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