How else can Linux fail in the consumer space?

Many Linux advocates and Linux bashers still think the success or failure of Linux in the consumer (not server or embedded) space rests on technical merits. Implementation, marketing, pricing, inertia, vendor lock-in—no, of course, those have nothing to do with whether people decide on Linux as opposed to Windows or Mac OS X. Would it help to work on the technical merits of Linux? Sure. Will that alone make Linux a success for consumers? Hardly. Technical merits will get technical users into it (Network admin, want a server? Use Linux. Hey, TiVo, want a free operating system for your DVR product? Use Linux).

Linux had a few good opportunities to succeed, but flubbed on the execution:

  1. OLPC. When I heard about the One Laptop Per Child project, I got giddy. It was marketed as the $100 laptop. It was going to be durable. It was going to use Linux. It was going to help kids in developing countries learn. If that had been what really happened, Linux would have really taken off, at least in certain demographic segments of the world. What really happened? Well, the laptop was nowhere near $100. It was more like $200. And if rich folks wanted them, they had to pay $400 ($200 to get one, $200 to give one). It also was a pretty ugly laptop, with an extremely crippled version of Linux.
  2. Dell. When Dell started up its Idea Storm section, it probably had no idea the section would be bombarded by Linux users demanding Dell start offering Linux preinstalled. Well, Dell half-heartedly gave in and offered a couple of select models with Ubuntu preinstalled. This half-hearted effort doomed the new venture to failure. Dell hid Ubuntu away so no one could see it on their website without a direct link or clever Google searching. Dell priced the Ubuntu laptops more than spec-equivalent Windows laptops. Dell “recommended” Windows on all the Ubuntu laptop pages (it still does). Dell still used Linux-unfriendly hardware (Broadcom, anyone?). To sum up, Dell was not invested in really selling Linux preinstalled. It just wanted to sort of, kind of appease the Linux community (most of whom continue to buy the cheaper Windows-preinstalled laptops and then install Linux for themselves).
  3. Netbooks. I love the idea of netbooks. The execution was terrible, though. They were not heavily advertised. Early netbooks had 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB SSD drives with 7″ screens. The battery life was poor. The keyboards were cramped. The screen resolution was practically non-existent. Worse yet, all the OEMs included crippled versions of Linux… Linpus Linux Lite, Xandros… installing software became in reality the nightmare that Linux haters often misrepresent it to be. It would be like having apps for the iPhone without an App Store. Yes, you could install a regular Linux version yourself, but that’s not what the everyday consumer is going to do. Microsoft slammed the years-familiar XP down on netbooks, and—suffering from a bad implementation and no marketing or advocacy from OEMs—Linux on netbooks floundered.
  4. Android. In many ways, Android is actually a success. But it is not the success it could have been. When people were saying various Android phones could be the next “iPhone killer,” I thought, Hey, maybe they could be. We’ll see. I wasn’t surprised to see that the G1 did not kill the iPhone, the MyTouch didn’t kill the iPhone, the Hero didn’t kill the iPhone, nor did the Droid, nor did the Nexus One. I have a MyTouch 3G with Android, and I love my phone. I understand very well why it didn’t kill the iPhone, though. Apple understands how to make an excellent user experience, and Google doesn’t. That’s the bottom line. I’m not an Apple fanboy. I actually disagree with a lot of the design decisions Apple makes. What I don’t dispute is that Apple has a vision. Every decision, whether I agree with it or not, has a rationale that makes sense. Yes, there are pros and cons, and Apple weighed them and decided the pros outweighed the cons. With Android, though, and with various HTC phones using Android, I see various bad interface implementations that have no pros at all. I just don’t see anyone properly testing these things. For example, on the MyTouch and the Nexus, the speaker is on the back of the phone. Why? On some of the Android text dialogues, you have to tap into the text field (even if you have no hard keyboard) to get the onscreen keyboard to appear (shouldn’t it appear automatically if the text field is in focus?). Those are just a couple of examples.

Just yesterday, Steve Jobs announced the iPad to much ridicule. People made fun of the name. People said it would be useless without Flash, a USB port, without a front-facing camera, without multi-tasking. They called it an oversized iPhone. They said the 4:3 aspect ratio wouldn’t be good for movies. The LED screen wouldn’t be good for reading in sunlight or for long periods of time.

I kind of liked it. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t drooling. But I can see the appeal. It looks like a slick device, and it’s priced a lot lower than people thought it would be (most of the speculation saw it between $700 and $1000). If it’s a standalone device (doesn’t need to hook up or sync to a Windows or OS X computer with iTunes), I might consider it.

I would be curious to see if any OEM is going to step up to the plate here, though, and give Linux a real chance. I doubt it. It would be quite simple, though. Create a tablet just like the iPad (has to include proper multi-touch, though… no backing out for fear of so-called patent infringement, Google). Run a Linux-based operating system that is mainly open source (but can have some proprietary programs on it). Include multi-tasking. Include a proper software repository. Use a regular hard drive instead of SSD drive. Include USB ports. Have better screen resolution or a widescreen aspect ratio. Then price it just a little below the iPad… oh, and give it a proper name… one people won’t make fun of.

How simple is that? Will it happen? Probably not. A bunch of iPad imitators will pop around, sure. They’ll each have serious flaws, though. Many will lack multi-touch. Most will be too bulky. Some won’t have a sensible user interface. Some will be too expensive. Then I can tack it on as yet another way Linux has failed in the consumer space.

Mark Shuttleworth, if you’re reading this, it’s about time you realized Bug #1 gets fixed once you create a full and unified software-hardware user experience. Hoards of Windows users aren’t going to download the Ubuntu .iso, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, repartition their hard drives, install Ubuntu, and then troubleshoot hardware compatibility problems. You (or someone with your savvy and financial resources) need to be the open source Steve Jobs if Linux is going to succeed in the consumer space.

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8 Comments

  1. The technical merits of Linux (or any OS) has little to do with its success in the consumer marketplace. After all, if that were even remotely true, Windows would have succumbed long ago, no?

    People decide on things like this mainly because of the reasons you listed: glitzy, eye-catching implementation; good, steady marketing; attractive pricing; consumer inertia; and vendor lock-in — “lock-in” being in terms of ‘practical’ (I already bought apps that work on *this* OS), ‘mental’ (it’s the devil I know), and ‘associative’ (it’s what I use at work, and what my friends use).

    There’s also a somewhat ironic tendency regarding pricing that influences this. People tend to place a mental value on something that they themselves have to *pay* for. Something that’s given to them or is available free tends to garner a certain ‘contempt’, as though “it’s not worth as much as this one that you have to pay so much for”.

    I’ve seen this happen a lot, and in different forms. There’s a mental block to overcome in convincing people that something that’s free can actually be not just “good”, but “better” than for-pay alternatives.

    I tend to think that at this point it’s a good idea for one Linux user to introduce a person to Linux, rather than depend on a new user adopting Linux by purchasing it pre-installed on a new PC — only partly for the reasons cited above having to do with “defective by design” marketing failures — or tele-support.

    Buying a Windows machine, then installing Linux has advantages well past the ability to pick & choose *any* hardware (that’s compatible), etc.: It allows the user to move their Windows license into VirtualBox (which is superior to dual-booting) and have two OSes to work with, a real plus during “transition”.

    Having Windows-in-a-Box provides a near-perfect method for a new user to gradually migrate from Windows familiarity to Linux, pulling up roots slowly, learning the new OS slowly — or as quickly as they wish/are able. And in the end always having the ability to occasionally run needed Windows-only software. I believe the merits of Linux will be a magnet to doing most of their computing in Linux, especially anything having to do with the Internet.

    So I think that’s another area where the execution has been flubbed: Easing the transition into “something shiny & new”.

  2. My take on the iPad is that it’s not what “most people” (at least the most vocal out there now) want, caused in part because of Apple’s culture of secrecy.

    I don’t get that they developed this product with a lot of input from their target market, especially as the design was maturing. If they had, then details of the iPad would have been everywhere on the Internet. But that obviously didn’t happen. Ergo, if we didn’t know anything about it before, then it’s likely that not many *did* know about it or were able to provide input when its concepts were being developed and its feature set chosen. (I, too, would have picked a different feature set.)

    I.e., I get the impression that Apple had to “guess” at what was wanted/needed, build it in secrecy, and then debut it as a “suprise”. That’s their style. Well, the surprise is now on Apple: They may not have guessed very well with this product…

    (This didn’t happen with the iPhone because cell phones, PDAs, et al were an established “device class”, and Apple joined the party ‘stylishly late’ — knowing the shortcomings and having heard what the public wants in a smartphone. Then making just that & marketing it well.)

    Perhaps now that Apple is just now getting their market’s input on this new class of electro-product, it will (eventually) be improved with Flash, a USB port, a front-facing camera, multi-tasking, etc. (Okay, maybe not Flash..) But they’re going to take egg on their face getting there due to this culture of tight secrecy prior to launch. I think it back-fired in this case…

    And, as one wag put it, “Too bad the iPad doesn’t come with some kind of lid you could close to protect it from abrasion and shock. Come to think of it, you could put the keyboard on the bottom half and the screen could actually be incorporated into the lid. You could call it a .. netbook maybe.” :^)

  3. “it’s about time you realized Bug #1 gets fixed once you create a full and unified software-hardware user experience.”

    you wrote that as if Apple has a significant market share over Microsoft? and as if Shuttleworth’s Canonical produces hardware and software?

  4. The main problems of Linux are inertia and moronic implementations.

    (There are other problems but as Microsoft and Apple can demonstrate, marketing can go a very long way.)

    Also it would be nice for people if the LSB would add some optional standard UI-design set that every distribution can build. This way Linux can get a familiar interface. Way to many companies try to make their own ui without realizing the defaults can sometimes be better than their own ui-cooking/cut-pasting.

  5. With a standard UI I mean themes.
    The freedesktop project tries to make desktop standards to allow interoperability between Gnome, KDE, XFCE,…
    Last time I looked I think I was a few things about UI’s although I’m not sure. Anyway it should be made if it’s not present.

  6. Take a look at the technology in new tablet from Notion Ink that was debuted at the CES, called “Adam”. It not only has a Linux OS & hardware features that everyone clamors for (including 1080p & HDMI output), but it has what may become THE tablet and netbook display — the Pixel Qi display.

    Tablet products based around this could bury the iPad as they further expand Linux in the consumer space. This LCD can be built with existing LCD foundries/technology, display full-color backlit video, and can also run with the display power off in a monochrome ‘e-paper’ mode — at full video speeds.

    There seem to be several tablet-class products popping up now. And all but the iPad seem to have two things in common: Small start-ups are developing them… and they’re based on Linux.

    First it was smartphones, then netbooks, now tablets, and next it will be …??

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