Home opinion-and-analysis Fuzzy Logic Have consumers spoken and said: 'œLinux sux'?

Have consumers spoken and said: 'œLinux sux'?

Uh-oh. Hazmat time. 0.001% of 1.04%* of the world’s Linux die-hard supergeeks are about to descend and call me all kinds of names, but facts are facts: one of the world’s biggest makers of netbooks says Linux models are being returned at a rate at least four times higher than XP netbooks. Could it be that Linux sucks?

Ok, open source, free loving, caring, sharing Linux users: what does it mean when everyday consumers are returning Linux netbooks at a four to one ratio – at least – over XP netbooks?

It means Linux hasn’t matured enough yet to cater to the needs of everyday users, despite having made its best efforts with the latest Linux distros, although hope certainly does exist for future versions to get better.

Laptop Magazine has interviewed MSI’s Director of U.S. Sales Andy Tung, with MSI a manufacturer of all kinds of technology, including many of the world’s notebooks and netbooks on an OEM basis for the big brand names.

Just as Asus has gone from OEM only to having its own brand, alongside other Chinese companies such as HTC, and in the past, Korean companies such as LG and Samsung, amongst others, MSI has decided that while OEM manufacturing is cool, having your own brand as well is even cooler.

And while Asus has been having tremendous success with the Eee PC line, MSI’s Wind netbook has similarly been very successful.

One thing that I noticed with Asus is that while initial models came with Linux, followed by XP versions, subsequent models have been released with XP first, with Linux models to come later.

This was said to be because Windows versions were more popular, and MSI’s experience with its Linux notebooks are another great eye opener as to why this is the case.

One thing's for sure: it's a great wake-up call to the Linux world to make Linux even easier to use, to banish command lines for everyday consumers (leaving it there for those who like to tweak, who are proficient at command line instructions or those who want to learn), and to accelerate efforts like Ubuntu Netbook Remix even faster. 

So, is MSI giving up on Linux? What did Andy Tung say in the interview, and what does it mean for Linux? Please read on to page 2.

Now, MSI isn’t giving up on Linux – far from it – but in its current form, Linux has resulted in a lot of returns that couldn’t be making MSI’s Chief Financial Officer very happy, whoever he or she is.

Laptop Magazine asked Andy Tung why many (but clearly not all) retailers have shied away from stocking netbooks, “at least until now”, with Tung responding that: “Retailers have been hesitant to bring netbooks into stores because at that moment they were afraid that the netbook category would eat at their notebook sales.

“They were also only selling the only available product from ASUS, and sales were only okay, and they struggled with return rates, especially of Linux systems. But now it has become more of a trend and these retailers just have to be in this business.”
When further probed about return rates being high with the Asus Eee PCs, Tung is asked if that has been the case with the MSI Wind as well.

Tung responds: “We have done a lot of studies on the return rates and haven’t really talked about it much until now. Our internal research has shown that the return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks, but the main cause of that is Linux.

“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. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks.”

Four times higher! At least. That's a startling figure, especially for Linux versions on netbooks that were designed to be as easy to use as possible. Of course, we can see that XP netbooks were returned too, and while the reason isn't stated, perhaps consumers were trying to do more with Windows XP than a netbook made comfortable. Who knows, they may also have returned it to get a Linux version instead.

Anyway, Laptop Magazine, a publication that you’d think would have its fair share of die-hard technology fans, and at least some with a lot of Linux experience, then made the admission that: “Interestingly enough, we struggled with the Linux version of the Wind U90.”

So they asked Tung “Are there plans to tailor a Linux OS for the Wind?”.

Tung's answer and my thoughts are on page 3...

Here Tung shows MSI’s intention to persevere with Linux, despite the return rates that have been much studied, saying: “We plan to bring the Linux version to the U.S by the end of the year.

“But we are working on some of the issues with the SUSE Linux and even continue to explore other flavors of Linux. We have discussed Ubuntu with a Mac OS type of look and feel. We are talking to different suppliers to figure out the best user experience.”

That "user experience" will still need to be tested, however, and then future return rates studied again. For the sake of the future of Linux, competition against Microsoft and Apple - and for the vaunted Linux sense of open source and freedom from oppression, the battle against the evil commercial Microsoft corporation, let's hope MSI, Asus and other computer manufacturers start taking Linux more seriously and helping shape its future into one consumers are even happier with than Windows. 

So... while one or even two netbook makers clearly aren’t a full indication of just how consumers see Linux, it certainly does tell a story.

And perhaps if a few had persevered a little further, they’d have figured out the differences and learned to love Linux as much as the next Linux fan and stop worrying.

But in a world where time is money, and change is hard, despite being inevitable like death and taxes, the inevitability of Windows being the preferred OS will continue for some time to come, no matter how much Linux purists wish it weren’t so, and no matter how many pins they place into voodoo dolls of William H Gates III holding a copy of Windows.

For no matter how much Linux has improved to date, Windows is still, for the vast, overwhelming majority of users, far more sophisticated and infinitely more user friendly.

No doubt, Linux will keep on improving, and will likely one day get there, making a major challenge to any future version of Windows.

But by then, whenever that may be, Microsoft could always make consumer versions of Windows free, or even drop prices dramatically to compete, making the always free Linux pill that much harder to swallow.

* 1.04% Linux userbase derived from the mean of OS usage stats at Wikipedia, as of September 2008.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.