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At 17, Is Linux Still Wet Behind the Ears?

It was a big week for our favorite technology last week, as true believers no doubt already know.

Not only was Linux 2.6.27 released — causing no small amount of discussion on Slashdot — but the operating system itself also turned 17 years old.

The Linux Journal article noting that momentous day had already received well more than a thousand Diggs by Friday, in addition to nearly 300 comments in the Slashdot world and plenty more beyond.

“To Richard and Linus, and to those who have picked up the tools and run with them: Thanks for my vocation, my hobby, my passion, and my computing freedom,” wrote dthacker on LXer.

Happy Birthday, Linux, from the Tux fan club here at LinuxInsider too!

Age of Consent?

Now, when a person turns 17, they’re typically still a year away from coming of age in the legal sense of the word, and from being granted all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. How, we can’t help but wonder, does that meaning carry over into the Linux world? Is Linux almost ready for adulthood — and the prime time?

It’s a question that has already been asked countless times before, of course, but it became particularly pertinent last week following new reports indicating that Linux netbooks are getting returned by consumers a full four times more often than Windows XP netbooks are.

“The return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks, but the main cause of that is Linux,” explained MSI’s Director of U.S. Sales Andy Tung in an interview with Laptop magazine. “People would love to pay (US)$299 or $399 but they don’t know what they get until they open the box. They start playing around with Linux and start realizing that it’s not what they are used to. They don’t want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store.”

People purchasing Linux netbooks is a good thing. Returning them soon afterwards? Not so good. What, exactly, is the problem?

‘Education Would Fix That’

“Education would fix that,” wrote Gewalt on Slashdot, where more than 650 comments were made in the attempt to answer that question. “Seriously, put some videos on there that explain how to do common tasks. Tasks that are better on Linux than on Windows. (Like finding/installing cool toys/software/games). Make the videos right there on the desktop. Once consumers find out they can do the things they want, and easily, they will like it.”

On the other hand: “People don’t want to be trained,” countered xzvf. “They want to be sold.

“The problem with Linux on the consumer desktop is nobody is selling it to them,” xzvf added. “Apple marketing makes a different machine cool and worth investing the time to learn. Maybe treating the netbook like a web/mail appliance instead of a small computer would help manufacturers do a better job of satisfying the customer.”

‘Are We There Yet?’

Meanwhile, Ed Bott at ZDNet shared his own take on the news, summed up in the headline, “Linux Ready to Replace Windows? Not yet….” That view got picked up on LXer, drawing a number of pointed comments.

Then there was the related article at LinuxHaxor that asked, “Linux for the Masses: Are We There Yet?” which got picked up at Foogazi and elsewhere.

So many ways of asking what’s essentially the same, fundamental question: Just how mature is Linux really? And how significant is the netbook problem? LinuxInsider took to the streets of the blogosphere to find out what others had to say.

All About Marketing

“I think the high return rates for the Linux netbook are due to a number of reasons,” Adam Kane, a blogger on Foogazi, told LinuxInsider. “First, although it may not have had much to do with the returns, the netbook was described as having a very poorly set-up and configured installation of Linux. But really, I think people are buying based on the cheaper price, and when they get home and turn it on they realize that it doesn’t ‘look’ like the neighbor’s computer does.

“It all comes back to how Linux is marketed,” Kane added. “It needs to market directly to the people, by offering ways to encourage users to actually want to switch to something completely new and different and invest the time learning it. Until Linux has a viable marketing solution it will continue to struggle in stores and on shelves.”

That, however, “doesn’t necessarily mean that Linux has a long way to go,” he pointed out. “But there are definitely kinks to be worked out, and the major Linux players like Red Hat, Suse and Ubuntu need to step up and make sure that, along with everything ‘just working’ on a computer pre-installed with Linux, manufacturers are putting the best configuration and installation of Linux possible on each machine.”

Compatibility Issues

Alternatively, Linux’s failure to support applications people are used to — or those that offer features they’re used to — is the main problem, Slashdot blogger Joe Baldwin told LinuxInsider.

“For instance, someone used to webcamming with their friends or sending voice clips via Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo Messenger would be underwhelmed — angry, even — if ‘their new computer’ (read: Pidgin IM, what appears to be the de facto standard IM app in the *nix world) doesn’t support those features,” Baldwin explained. “And when they go to the local discount store and buy some genealogy app or Office or whatever, and can’t install it because their computer doesn’t support it, they won’t be angry at the makers of the app, or necessarily even the Ubuntu/Linux projects, they’ll be annoyed with the people who sold them a netbook or laptop that to them is crippled.”

Indeed, people who are running nothing but Windows at home or in their offices and intend their newly bought netbooks to be portable versions of what they’re used to are “going to find plenty of cognitive dissonance,” Slashdot editor Timothy Lord agreed. “That’s especially true if they want to run specific Windows-centric (or Windows-only) applications.”

‘Familiarity Breeds Dependence’

The Linux-based netbooks are touted as competent, all-around ultra-portables, “which is a fair claim,” Lord told LinuxInsider. “But I suspect people aren’t considering the fine print, which leads to some chronic cases of sour grapes. Yes, the Linux-based netbooks do e-mail, word processing, picture-viewing, etc. — but it’s not Outlook, and not Word, and not whatever it is that Windows uses for previewing photos. Familiarity breeds more than contempt — it also breeds dependence.”

It’s also worth noting that the return problem refers only to a single netbook model, Kevin Dean, a blogger on Monochrome Mentality, pointed out.

“The problem with the MSI Wind wasn’t Linux,” Dean told LinuxInsider. “The problem was user experience. This isn’t a ‘blame the stupid user fest,’ either — I think it’s more of a branding issue of MSI’s than anything else.”

‘I’m Not Overly Worried’

Indeed, “I’m not overly worried — it’s a new product, and it’s likely that some people who purchased them didn’t know they couldn’t run their favorite Windows app,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “The important thing is that these machines are selling well and even with the return rate the manufacturers are making enough of a profit to come out with new models.”

What of Linux’s readiness for the masses?

“If any mass adoption of Linux on the desktop is to happen, it will be when developers start listening to their users, adding features that they want (such as the aforementioned webcam stuff) and caring about the reaction, as many right now don’t seem to,” Baldwin said.

“People want to use their computers in the way they’ve been accustomed; not necessarily with the same UI or the same programs, but with the same basic features,” he added. “They won’t accept any excuses or reasons for them not being able to do what they used to do, they’ll just want the old way back,” he said.

Ready for Whose Desktop?

“People will noodle on forever about this ‘ready for the desktop’ stuff — I’m guilty of it, too,” Lord admitted. “But it’s been many people’s primary desktop, or only desktop, for many years. If someone has a specific application need, and that app won’t run on Linux, then Linux isn’t ready for *his* desktop.”

Then there’s the issue of change.

“I’ve always been one to side with the ‘it doesn’t matter’ crowd,” Dean said. “As bad as Windows is, the disgruntled MSI customers show that familiarity and lack of change is important to people.”

Even though “everyone hates Vista, the vast majority still don’t do anything about it,” Dean explained. “At this point, it’s no longer about ‘Linux versus Windows’ because even Windows doesn’t beat Windows. Even among those willing to do something like demand their favorite PC retailer sell XP aren’t willing to venture beyond the familiar — as evidenced by Microsoft extending XP ‘downgrades’ for 6 more months.”

Not for the Mass Market

So, given that many people are resisting change itself — not Linux — “you have to focus on the segment of people that are WILLING to change and find out what they’re doing,” Dean said.

So, is Linux ready? “Yes. I use it exclusively, so it CAN provide a useful, functional and fully featured desktop system,” he added.

“The question that should be asked is, ‘Linux is ready — can it go mass market?” Dean concluded. “And on that, I’d have to say, ‘No.’ It’s not the fault of Linux, it’s just that people really don’t like change. To most people, PC means Windows, and until there’s a very, very compelling reason to make that change — be it technical or social, like the ‘fashion of Mac’ — people won’t.”

2 Comments

  • The emerging markets can afford to buy the small netbooks. They are not locked-in, do not have their favourite app for M$, and are free to choose hardware and software on price and performance. M$ is losing traction on its monopoly. HP is even selling the Mini-Note with the same hardware for GNU/Linux or that other OS with $100 price differential. China is now producing a home-grown netbook that sells for $98. M$ has nowhere to hide.

    GNU/Linux share is growing rapidly. All the netbook makers are maxed-out and supply-chain-limited. About half these machines are shipped with GNU/Linux and as competition heats up those OEMs who wish to stay in the game will continue to ship GNU/Linux. BRIC countries alone will be larger than the existing markets in a few years’ time. M$ will have to cut prices seriously, as they already have in those markets, and make a product that will run properly on the netbooks. Some distros already are customized for netbooks. The dinosaur cannot readily adapt to changing conditions. They may keep a lot of their present market forever but they are out of the running in the rest of the world. The question is moot. GNU/Linux is ready for the mass market and is out there doing business in a big way.

  • It dosen’t matter what Linux you have installed lack of directions for use is a problem for the new user. I had installed Linux on my wife’s laptop and everything was great for months until she wanted to add to the family tree………. OOPS! not happening. So much as I hate it I had to reinstall XP so she could do her thing.

    Yes if there was a video of "how to" included on the desktop it would improve things.

    Linux even if you are only a partial geek is easy & fun but most office folks have to call the IT guy if their mouse is unplugged and their IT guy dosen’t do Linux anyway, They buy what they are used to using, go figure.

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