Why Current Linux-Preinstalls Pose Adoption Problems for Netbook Users

This christmas, Santa brought an Acer Aspire One (A110L) for my mother, a not so techy person. It even had a customized version of Linpus Linux on it featuring quite a pleasant, simple UI. It’s supposed to be simple and useful. And at first glance, that’s true: It comes with Firefox, OpenOffice, etc.

Unfortunately, there is also a downside. Why? Because it comes with Firefox, OpenOffice, etc… on Fedora Core 8, a quite old version of the Distribution. Firefox is on Version and no official update is available, leaving A110 users with known security issues and a product which is officially abandoned by the vendor. Same holds true for OpenOffice.org 2.3, the current Version is 3.0.

The Update System does not use YUM, it has propritary system that downloads XML descriptions, packages and shell scripts from a Taiwanese, overworked Server, with no (visible) signature validation (*yikes*).1)

So I wanted to install Skype, since that’s what my family uses to do voice and video chatting. The built-in messanger also has no support for Jabber. So I wanted to install skype and PSI instead of the built-in messanger. Both turned out to require advanced Linux-Knowledge (installing RPMs manually in case of Skype) and some google searching (becoming root, add items into the menu). Some choices, like the choice of language can only be done via
the GUI initially. Later on, one needs to find a script that sets environment variables and reboot the system.

So where is the trouble? The extra step via Linpus. While it seems like the ideal OS (Startup time of about 4 seconds, easy launcher interface), it

  • Keeps the users from secure upgrades to decent versions. Even worse: It keeps the users from even customizing their Netbooks just a little bit. With the Windows XP variant, installing Skype is just a Download and a Mouse click away. That’s why I find a lot of people moving on to XP right away or buying the XP version in the first place. The hypothesis that netbook users accept their devices just the way they are is a myth.
  • Keeps the average user from installing new Software (keep in mind the target audience!).
  • Woeks around the underlying distributions update infrastructure.

Not sure if Ubuntu’s Netbook spins are the answers, but I will definitely give them a try on an external SSD medium.

1) I admit that this is not the central point here, but since I’m at 25c3 and Dan Kaminsky has just stressed how many update systems suck because they lack any kind of validation about the blob they are about to download and run as root, I felt like pointing it out.

PS: Dear Lazyweb: Does anyone have expiriences with other Netbook Vendors? I am under the impression that the Eee PC preinstallation suffers from similar problems.

22 Comments on “Why Current Linux-Preinstalls Pose Adoption Problems for Netbook Users

  1. honestly, i have an msi-wind clone from a german vendor. i bought it with windows xp home and installed linux on it. for your mom you should seriously consider installing windows xp on it. no mess and no stress. a computer is aimed to do the work and not to waste weeks to get it working.

  2. It’s not about my mother, I think we can handle the problems :-). it’s about seeing the problems at hand here and that they mean for the general adoption (and user acceptance) of Linux.

    Bottom Line: Even those laptops need to be configurable in some ways.

  3. I have an Asus EEE901 – Junked the Linux that came with it and installed latest ubuntu – You get wired only on install then you need to add a repo from http://www.array.org and install the kernel from there and everything else just works then!

    Cam, wireless and sounf work great and have had no problems at all.

  4. Welcome in the Linux world !
    You will face the same issue and thus whatever distribution you have.
    Most distro will be released with a fixed version of software, and they will not most of the time update to a newer version of the software. To have the new version, you will have to update the whole distribution. Of course, backported applications exists, but most of the time they are not in the official repo, or are marked as unstable/testing. And this is true for the apps provided by the distribution.

    And you are not even talked about the hardware support issue. Supporting third parties devices may be hard, because if the driver may exist in kernel 2.6.29, but you’re distro is using 2.6.27, you will have a hard time to add support for this hardware. You end up using source and compil the module, or pray your distro to backport the kernel, or wait for the next release which will contain a newer kernel with the kernel ( at most 6 months to wait ).

    Installing third party applications, i.e not available in distrobution repo, may be very hard under Linux, especially because Linux is a moving system with a new version each 6 months and thus for the X linux distributions.

  5. I have an EeePC 701, and at least some updates are available from Debian repos, but it’s not good for a newbie. The updates actually provided by Asus are barely worth a mention.

    I recently bought an Acer Aspire One, as well. It runs Fedora 10 without a problem, except, crucially, that I can’t get wireless networking to work.

    I suppose that the installed versions of Linux are still somewhat more secure than Windows versions that don’t get frequent updates, but I agree that it’s not a perfect solution.

  6. The Amarok version released with the first EeePCs was horribly out of date and we got a lot of support requests and bug reports for them.
    I don’t know if people stopped buying the Linux version or simply install a proper distro on it now (like I did). Either way the reports seem to have stopped.

  7. I had a few hours with an EeePC a few months ago. You can update, but the repositorys don’t provide any new software. So as a newbie you are either lucky and don’t need anything not installed by default, or you’re screwed.

    Whats really bad is how well “adapted” that eeepc-customized xandros is to small displays: in kcontrol, when you open a configuration module that has more content that can be displayed in the window, scrollbars appear. Not pretty, but at least you can access everything….

    Well… thats the case for every kcontrol-module *except* those made especially for xandros, where you hava to make the window bigger than the screen, and move it with alt/meta left button to get to every control-element.
    I want to see a newbie figuring that one out…

  8. Absolutely a problem. The Eeepc came with a wireless app that didn’t save passwords for access points. That issue defined the platform for many. I suspect Nightrose doesn’t get bug reports because most sales are now XP. Sad because a ‘working’ application exists on the Eeepc, accessible in expert mode, let alone in the general free desktop applications.

    I think, not sure yet, that finally the drivers are in the latest kernel released a few days ago. Over a year.

    Oddly, the community fixed most issues within a few months. Asus helped by honoring the GPL, Xandros? Dunno.


  9. What a bunch of whiners you have gotten on the blog.

    You want a netbook that provides a full-linux experience and is not limited by lack of updates or applications?

    Buy a dell. It comes preinstalled with Ubuntu, it has updates and thousands of apps available for it.

    Buy an MSI-Wind or one of its clones and if you do not like the default distribution, you can install any regular distribution and it will work fine.

  10. I would simply never use the shoddy default Linux install on such a system. From all I’ve heard they are not worth any attempts at fixing them with less radical means.
    Any reasons not to install Kubuntu/Debian/Ark/… ?

  11. I totally agree with you. To choose Linux as a cheap alternative for netbooks was a great idea. To choose some customized versions of distros like this Linpus light, or the Asus Xandros was just killing the good idea. It really limits some of the advantages of Linux, and make it appear as limited.

    We bought an Asus EEE for work purpose. The Xandros system was complicated to customize. We needed to install a small web server, but it was not in the asus repo. And to install debian repos is not 100% safe, as it may not be compatible with the Asus repo. So it’s working, but it may break things at any moment. Not acceptable for a professionnal use.

    Apparently it’s the same for Acer. And probably for other netbooks.

    Now the good student I think: Dell. We bought one Mini9 as it was using Ubuntu. It’s a customized Ubuntu, with repositories hosted by Canonical for Dell. But those repositories just look like the usual ones, with support for the Atom, and the additionnal software made by Dell (a nice menu made with Clutter). All the softwares available for Ubuntu are there, so it was really easy to customize. We installed Cherokee, PHP, and a couple of other stuffs. Except this menu, it’s just a normal Ubuntu adapted for netbooks (one bar only, windows open maximized), it boots quite quickly, it supports all the hardware. I think it’s compatible with all the ubuntu repositories made for the Atom platform.

    So for us it was the obvious choice, it relies on a good distribution that we are familiar with, and does not try to use a customized one build on an already customized distribution like Xandros and Linpus. The only drawback is that it’s not yet available for Intrepid.

  12. Congratulations for completely missing the point (like a bunch of others, too btw).

    This is not about me being pissed of. I know how to fix this for my situation. I was just using the situation to make a point:

    So again for those who failed to (not too) carefully read and understand texts (not sure they still teach that kind of stuff, it would certainly be useful):

    Users getting the wrong impression on Linux is a missed opportunity for both Linux Vendors (aka Distros) and Hardware Vendors (to get around the Windows Fee and Microsoft’s dictatorship on how a Netbook has to look in order to be allowed to install XP on it.

  13. I bought the Dell Inspiron 910 (mini Dell) and actually used the default install of Ubuntu for awhile before reloading it to 8.10 instead of 8.04.

    There were some rough parts for me, bought th16 GB SSD drive but had only a 4 gig parition in it. But other then that things work fine with the default install.

    There is a great guide (www.ubuntumini.com) and a google group as well that you can subscribe via email to as well.

    The email discussion on the google group has definitly picked up since Christmas.


  14. Are you sure there is no signature check in Linpus? Yum normally checks the signatures of RPM packages. The signature is embedded in the RPM, the public key to verify it against is installed at system install time. The metadata is currently not signed in Fedora (so of course it isn’t in Linpus either), but the packages themselves are. There’s not much evil stuff you can do with the unsigned metadata if the signatures on the packages themselves are validated.

    As for security updates, try the ones from the original Fedora 8 maybe? It’s not out of support yet (though it will be in little more than a week).
    firefox: https://admin.fedoraproject.org/updates/F8/FEDORA-2008-11551
    openoffice.org: https://admin.fedoraproject.org/updates/F8/FEDORA-2008-9333
    Those updates can be found in the Fedora 8 updates repository. That said, I don’t know if just pulling all updates from there will break your Linpus, YMMV. The kernel in particular is probably a bad idea to replace.

  15. All the problem come from the fact that these hardware vendor do not partner with a big name distro, and they see Linux as a way to force Microsoft to sell them Windows XP for cheap instead of providing a got user experience.

    So you end up having none of the advantages of Linux.

    They get a fail.

  16. The ASUS eee has much of the same problems. An old firefox/openoffice.org/amarok and an installation system that seems very odd. In most cases the best you can do is to install a system you know/trust with newer software and updates.

    It can be noted that an eeePC 901 runs amazingly well with a KDE4 on top, with all the graphical effects it is still humming a fine tune 🙂 (in my case a Kubuntu Intrepid + custom kernel from array.org). You just need to set the font size down a lot, and set a sane hotkey for the KWin “fullscreen” function.

  17. I bought a Sylvania g netbook. The hardware is brilliant but the installed gOS 2.92 distro (a beta!) was the absolute pits. gOS 3.0, downloadable from the Sylvania website, was hardly better. Both are based on Ubuntu Hardy 8.04.1. Both have outdated apps. Both lack proper drivers for the hardware they are preinstalled on.

    For example, the 1.2GHz Via C7-M ULV CPU, the same one you’ll find in the HP MiniNote, fully supports frequency scaling. The 2.6.24.x kernel in gOS does not. There is a backport (kernel patch) that’s been available longer than the machine has been on the market yet for some reason it’s not included in even the final release. By default the machine comes up with the CPU scaled back to 600MHz. I’m sure that extends the battery life but performance is sluggish. With gOS there is no way to change it. I installed Vector Linux 6.0rc1 and the vcpufreq GUI application lets me setup scaling any way I want. At 1.2GHz the machine is quite fast and when I’m on battery power and don’t need the extra power it scales back.

    Similarly, gOS (either version) ships with an old, proprietary Via Chrome video driver that doesn’t support 3D acceleration. You have to either download the latest (now open source) driver from Via or else use a distro that has the latest OpenChrome driver. Either of those work just fine.

    The Realtek 8187 wireless chipset is fine for wireless but the driver included in gOS 2.92 is hopeless. They fixed this in 3.0 at least. Of course you need a USB CD or DVD drive to install 3.0. How many new netbook owners won’t have that? How many would be comfortable reloading the OS? There is no upgrade patch from 2.92 to 3.0, BTW.

    gOS also idiot proofs their system by hiding little things like any terminal apps, Synaptic (the package manager), or any other useful administration tools. They are installed but you have to either create a launcher or edit a .desktop file in /usr/share/applications to add them back into the menu. Of course they have a reason for doing this. gOS has no repositories of their own and doing a full system upgrade from the Ubuntu repositories breaks the OS and leaves you in single user mode at the next reboot.

    So, yes, the problem is the distros and the way they assume that users 1) won’t care about security, and 2) are clueless. HP and Dell (with SUSE and Ubuntu respectively) get it right. So does MSI. Even Sylvania wised up and put Ubuntu on their Meso g. I just pity anyone who buys an original g who isn’t Linux savvy.

    OTOH, I love my Sylvania g (original version) now that I have a real distro installed. These things are probably the least expensive well equipped netbook out there. Just don’t use the OS that was provided.

  18. i bought an samsung nc10 and installed kubuntu on it. it was really easy, the only thing i had to do for wlan was

    – sudo apt-get install linux-backports-modules-intrepid linux-backports-modules-intrepid-generic

    – kdesudo kate /etc/modules

    and add ath5k to load the module.
    i love kde4 on the netbook, its real fun 😀

  19. I have a Aspire One too, regarding the hardware, it’s a nice little netbook but I agree that they really failed for the installed OS…

    I’m still hoping for a project providing a customized kernel for the Aspire One and based on a good distro (and KDE4 of course!). Any hints ?

  20. Anyone got any gripes with maemo as a linux distribution? What if maemo which was developed for small form factor tablets like the Nokia 810 were adapted for netbooks. The displays on some netbooks isnt that much bigger than the N810. And the functionality isn’t that much different overall.

    As a user you may be tempted to think of these netbooks as laptops..but in terms of software design constraints..its probably better to imagine them as beefy smartphones with big keyboards. The small display sizes really break conventional desktop oriented UI elements. The sort of physical constraints Maemo has a distribution has been addressing for years now.

    Even if Canonical’s OEM customized pre-installs of Ubuntu solve some perceived problems it maybe be too late to see significant market penetration of Ubuntu. The retail market may have decided on XP already.


    Toshibia, a Canonical OEM partner, confirms that XP accounts for 90%+ of its netbook sales in line with Acer’s sales numbers. If Linpus were the problem and Ubuntu Mobile were the solution, you would expect the adoption of the linux pre-install of the Toshiba model to be doing better compared to the Toshiba XP pre-install…but its not. Dell didn’t go on record with numbers in the article, but there is an implication there that Dell’s numbers are in line with the Acer and Toshiba linux/XP split.

    And on top of that both Toshiba and Dell are minor players in the overall OEM market in market research estimates. Acer and Asus dominate the market. If Ubuntu was the answer you would expect Canonical’s OEM partners.. Dell and Toshiba to be competitive as a top player in marketshare with either Asus or Acer. They are not….not yet.


    And thats just the Atom based netbooks. There is a MIPS based hardware out there using a custom debian distro with a 2.4.x kernel!


    And to muddy the waters further, Canonical is working towards supporting new ARM based devices, which are going to be entering the market later this year (maybe) sporting low power consumption…but by the time those devices land the market is going to have matured and at the rate things are going..its going to be a XP retailer market. That itwire article doesn’t point to linux being more than a 10% player in the market…at best.

    If compatibility with traditional laptop and desktops are a driving purchasing considering, XP will dominate. For linux on netbooks to really be attractive in the pre-install space, these things will have to be marketed as devices. They need to competing more with smartphones and wifi tablets like the Nokia N810, where limited functionality is accepted and the target consumer isn’t looking for the depth of software that a traditional desktop or server linux distribution provides.

    Targeting a marketing campaign for these devices at people who desire the ability to run apache on these things is a marketing failure. Sure you can do it, but talking about doing it isn’t going to help you sell linux based products to the mass consumer audience.

    If the ARM based devices that Canonical is helping to port linux to make it to market, they might be exactly what is needed. ARM devices can’t compete directly with Atom based devices…ARM devices can’t run Windows XP. So if someone..like Nokia..comes into the market this year running Ubuntu on ARM, they might have exactly the right experience to build a successful marketing effort that positions their “netbook” which de-emphasizes desktop/laptop compatibility and emphasizes it as a portal to rich web based services with fantastic power consumption. But that’s far from a sure thing.

    Market forces aside, personally, I think traditional linux distribution is the wrong model for netbook or other consumer electronics. I think the way Foresight is built may have some compelling advantages and that the coronary and rbuilder technologies from rpath may have compelling advantages for updating OEM pre-install linux images.