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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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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Education Linux Ubuntu

The woman who dropped out of MATC after mistakenly buying a Ubuntu laptop from Dell

I know I’m probably the millionth person to comment on this (is millionth even a word?), but I have only two things to say.

1. To the anti-Linux folks and tech “journalists” who blame this on Linux not being “friendly” enough for new users or being for only those who want to tinker with their computers, how exactly would Ubuntu (or any Linux distro) have been friendlier or easier to use in this case? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Verizon gives you the impression its software is necessary to set up an internet connection? Or that Verizon’s CD provides Windows-only software for it? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Microsoft has made Microsoft Office closed source and not made a Linux version? Does Ubuntu have any control over MATC’s requirements misleading people into thinking they need Windows when Linux will do just fine? Did this woman really have to drop out of college because of the laptop?

2. To the supposedly pro-Linux folks who feel the need to harass this woman through Facebook or whatever, shame on you. Should she have known better to research what computer she was buying before plunking down $1100? Sure. Is she an idiot? No. She’s just an idiot when it comes to computers, and I know a lot of otherwise brilliant folks who are idiots when it comes to computers (I was a computer idiot only five years ago myself). There’s no need to send hate mail her way when the people really at fault are the “journalists” who don’t actually do any kind of investigative reporting and rely solely on catchy headlines and misinformation to gain readership and website hits.

A friend of mine recently went back to school for interior design and previously had been a Mac user. Surprise, surprise—she got herself a Windows computer, because she knew AutoCAD wouldn’t run on her iBook. Somehow, though, I can’t picture WKOW 27 running a news story on Mac OS X forcing her to drop out of college because it doesn’t run AutoCAD, even if she had stuck with her iBook.

Edit: Here’s an example of a Mac user on Yahoo! Answers who is having trouble with the .exe file to set up her Belkin wireless router. Anyone going to run a news story on it? Doubtful.

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Computers Linux Ubuntu

Dell, you didn’t do right by your Ubuntu customers

Quite a large handful of Ubuntu Forums members ordered Dell Inspiron Mini 9 computers with Ubuntu preinstalled. Kudos to Dell for offering (and actually advertising) Ubuntu preinstalled, and good on those who bought Ubuntu preinstalled (not an XP preinstalled they installed Ubuntu in place of themselves) and sent a real message to a major OEM that there is a demand for Linux preinstalled.

Still, there was a major problem. If you ordered a Dell Mini with an 8 GB or 16 GB hard drive, only 4 GB of it appeared to be usable. Dell has admitted to the problem and has said it’s fixed the problem for future-shipping units.

There is a problem, though. In its latest blog entry, “Inspiron Mini 9 with Ubuntu Linux – 8GB and 16 GB Hard Drives Not Fully Formatted” (in which they mention my username but misspell it—just an aside, no big deal), they say

For customers wishing to be able to use the extra unformatted disk space immediately, if you purchased a USB DVD drive with your Mini, you may use the system restore DVD included with your system to completely reinstall the operating system. (emphasis added)

I realize they’re working on a simple method for customers to use to format/reclaim the unused hard drive space without reinstalling the OS but this is ridiculous. So customers have to have paid Dell money for an external USB DVD drive in order to fix a mistake that Dell made? Dell should be rewarding, not punishing, its loyal early adopter customers. I realize it’d lose some initial money on doing this, but in the long run it’d earn the respect and future business of its existing customers if it shipped its customers free USB DVD drives to reinstall the OS. If it’s your fault, you pay for the replacement.

My wife has an iPhone power supply part that Apple has recalled. Does Apple want her to pay for the replacement part? No, because the faulty part is Apple’s fault. Any recall, any manufacturing problem is the vendor’s fault and should be fixed at the vendor’s expense, not the customer’s.

Dell, you are not doing right by your Ubuntu customers. So if they happened to have bought a USB DVD drive, they can reinstall the OS. If they haven’t, then what should they do, buy one? And will you reimburse them the cost?

Categories
Computers Linux Windows

Dell Inspiron Mini Pricing “Scandal”

Linux users love to be outraged.

Ever since Dell started selling certain models with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled, Linux users on forums and blogs have been complaining that Dell hasn’t been doing Linux justice. Why did they pick Ubuntu instead of another distro? Why is Ubuntu available in that country and not my country? Why is Ubuntu available on only these certain models? Why isn’t Ubuntu advertised better on the Dell website? Why does Dell keep recommending Windows Vista Home Premium, even on the Ubuntu build-your-system-page? And why would a computer with a cost-free operating system (Ubuntu) ever be more expensive or the same cost as the same computer with a costly operating system (Windows)?

Back in 12 July 2007, after much outrage from the Linux community, Dell finally admitted the pricing difference was a mistake:

Dell Ubuntu Linux buyers were recently outraged when a price comparison between identical Inspiron 1420 laptops showed that instead of the Ubuntu system being cheaper, it actually ended up costing $225 more than the same laptop with Vista Home Basic Edition. This was after Dell had announced the week before that Ubuntu systems would be $50 cheaper than similar systems running Vista Home Basic Edition.

“Bottom line this was an oversight, pure and simple,” a Dell spokesperson told DesktopLinux.com. “We will be posting a comment to IdeaStorm to that effect by tomorrow.” In the meantime, Dell says that the prices have been reset to the appropriate prices.

Since then, though, comparative prices of Vista and similarly spec’ed Ubuntu computers has fluctuated. At times, both are roughly the same price. Then Ubuntu is slightly more expensive. Then Ubuntu is slightly cheaper. As far as I can tell, it comes down to Dell occasionally offering special discounts, “instant savings,” and promotional upgrades on only the Vista computers. So if you take the price as is, Ubuntu is cheaper. But if Vista happens to have a special deal that week, Vista will end up cheaper or with better specs for the same price. In other words, Dell is promoting Windows computers and only offering Ubuntu ones.

Various Linux users have proposed reasons as to why the Ubuntu computers might sometimes cost more or be only slightly cheaper than the same Windows computers:

  • Windows computers usually come with what’s known as “crapware” (all the free trial software people typically uninstall—AOL, Norton Antivirus, etc.). Those companies pay Dell to put that “crapware” (i.e., advertising) on its computers. And you typically see these programs on Windows installations more than Ubuntu ones, so the Windows computers are subsidized by third-party software vendors.
  • Windows licenses may be so cheap as to be practically free. Dell probably has bulk deals with Microsoft. I can’t imagine they pay even close to full retail on those OEM Windows licenses.
  • Microsoft, in fact, probably pays Dell. Why else would Dell Recommends Windows Vista Home Premium be plastered all over the Dell website? Do you really think they recommend Vista? No. They’re paid to recommend Vista.
  • Dell has operational costs. It is not as if offering Ubuntu is free, even though the operating system itself is free. It takes a lot of time to develop proposals, test hardware, work with Canonical, develop an infrastructure for support, and adjust the Dell website accordingly in order to offer a new option apart from Windows. Dell has to recoup that loss, just as a bookstore that orders you a special copy of a rare book might have to charge you more for that book than for a New York Times bestseller.
  • There are other components that do cost money. Even though Ubuntu itself is free, Dell has now added in legal commercial DVD playback and MP3 playback. Those licenses cost money, even if the Ubuntu ones don’t.

Given all of those factors, I’m frankly surprised the Ubuntu computers do not always cost more than their Windows counterparts.

I will say that given the price difference is usually quite small, you should buy the Ubuntu model if you want to use Ubuntu (instead of buying the slightly cheaper Windows model and then installing Ubuntu yourself). Just as there are short-term freedoms (I want to play this proprietary multimedia format now) and long-term freedoms (I want to be able to choose what multimedia format I play), there are short-term costs (paying a few dollars more for a Ubuntu laptop) and long-term costs (having Windows continue to be the main or only preinstalled option).

Money talks. Petitions walk.

You can petition and Idea Storm and Digg and blog and forum rant all you want, but if you tell Dell “We want Ubuntu preinstalled!” and then you buy Windows computers and install Ubuntu yourself, you’re really telling Dell “Linux users are all talk and no action,” which also means if you ever want to present Linux as a viable option for someone who wants it, you’ll have to keep telling them “Find a Linux geek to install and configure it for you or become a Linux geek yourself” instead of “Buy it online from this well-known company.”

I know people who pay more for organic or locally grown produce. I know people who pay more to support mom-and-pop businesses over Wal-Mart. Is it so wrong to pay a little more for Ubuntu when you know there are good reasons for it being slightly more expensive (it’s not just “Dell is out to screw us!”)? You can call it “voting with your wallet,” because that’s what it is.

That said, I really don’t understand where the whining about the recent Dell Inspiron Mini 9 release is coming from.

Let’s take a look at this on the US site. Right now, we have three base options:

  • $349 with Ubuntu advertised as 2GB of free internet storage from Box.net
  • $399 with Windows XP advertised as Larger Hard Drive
  • $449 with Windows XP advertised as More Memory and Larger Hard Drive

First of all, the Ubuntu one is the cheapest. I’m not talking value here. I’m not saying if you get the same specs, this one is cheaper than that one. I’m talking sheer money. So if you want to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Talk is cheap, and I should vote with my wallet, but that’s easy to say if you have money,” then that line of reasoning won’t fly. If you’re short on cash and have only $349, Ubuntu is actually your only option.

That said, it’s usually cheaper to have a base model than to upgrade. Some people have pointed out that after you match the Ubuntu specs to the highest model XP specs, the Ubuntu one is more expensive. Yes, that’s true, but after you match the middle-spec’ed XP to the higher-spec’ed XP, it’s also more expensive. After you upgrade the RAM to 1 GB and the hard drive to 16 GB, the middle model becomes $464, which is $15 more than the higher model’s base price ($449). So if you want to argue that Ubuntu is “more expensive” than Windows, you’d also have to recognize that Windows itself is “more expensive” than Windows. As a matter of fact, when you upgrade the Ubuntu model to 1 GB of RAM and a 16 GB hard drive and add in the 0.3 megapixel webcam, it’s also $464.

It’s not exactly clear from Dell’s website whether the XP models have the 2GB of free online storage or not, so I don’t know how that factors into the pricing. The main Mini page seems to indicate it’s Ubuntu-specific, but if you click on the Design tab, it has this little blurb, which seems to be attached to all the Minis:

Keep your files online! We’ve partnered with Box.net to provide 2GB of free internet storage for every Inspiron Mini 9 customer. Store, access, collaborate, and share any type of file through a secure, simple, and intuitive web browser experience. Plus, upgrade to larger accounts to store more files.

All that said, I am a little disappointed with the pricing overall (not Ubuntu pricing v. Windows pricing). When Eee launched its Asus Eee PCs last year, they were hyped as being as low as $199 but eventually came out as $399 with a later $299 model. The Inspiron Minis were hyped as being as low as $299, but now we see the cheapest model is $349, and its specs aren’t much better than the original Eee PCs (Atom processor and slightly larger screen, but that’s it).

I have a feeling netbooks will really take off when you can get a decent model with amazing battery life for $150 or $199.

In the meantime, if you want companies to sell Linux preinstalled computers, you have to buy Linux preinstalled computers. I thought it was “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”

Categories
Asus Eee PC Linux Ubuntu

Should I trade my Eee PC 701 for a Dell Inspiron 901

I saw Leaked: Dell Inspiron 910 (Mini Note) Specs and Release Date today and I’m intrigued, but I’m not excited yet.

I tend to be pretty cautious about computer purchases. I’ve heard rumors that the base model is supposed to be US$299, but I’m not sure what specs that’ll be. By the time you jack up the specs to be something reasonable, it may be over US$600, which I’m not willing to shell out.

I also find it odd that a couple of months ago, Dell hinted at the netbooks being announced in August. It’s almost the end of August now and it’s still just “leaked… specs” a few days before the supposed release date (August 22). If Dell is releasing the netbooks on August 22, shouldn’t they have released the full specs and pricing (not just “leads” and speculation) a lot earlier?

Well, I’m curious to see how this all turns out. I love my Eee, but I don’t love its Ubuntu-unfriendliness (I don’t think I can go back to Xandros at this point). If the Dell Inspiron 901s are priced reasonably, get good reviews, and come preinstalled with a Ubuntu version that boots up within seconds, then I may just regift my Eee to a friend who doesn’t mind Xandros and who also travels a lot.

Bring it on, Dell! Let’s see what you got.