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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.