Where Do YOU Send Netbook Users For Help?

As a Linux evangelist, I find myself in an interesting quandary. There are many new netbooks being sold with Linux pre-installed, but often the way Linux is installed is not what I’m used to seeing. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I understand the reasoning for custom interfaces, but it has some disadvantages. Love it or hate it, as a Linux community we have to be able to handle these things gracefully, or we lose all the potential impact we gain with pre-installed Linux.

Why Companies Customize the GUI

  • Netbooks are trying to fill a specific gap between notebook computers and handheld devices. A simple interface to access full programs makes sense.
  • With a standard “Start” menu, new users might assume they could install anything they download from the Internet... for Windows
  • Fewer software options means fewer technical support issues
  • And lastly, Linux makes it easy to customize, so it’s tempting to do so strictly for brand recognition

Why This Frustrates Linux Geeks

I can only speak for myself on this matter, but I can imagine many of us feel the same way. When a user asks a question about the Eee version of Xandros, or the Aspire version of Linpus -- the question almost becomes unique to that machine as opposed to a general Linux question. Sure, the Eee uses a customized version of Xandros, which is based on Debian, but once it’s gone through those revision levels, most issues are Eee Xandros specific.

I often struggle when helping users of these new netbooks, because even though it’s Linux, it’s still foreign to me. Yes, I usually manage to point people in the right direction, but it turns out to me more challenging than questions regarding standard, common distributions. How does the wireless tray app work in Ubuntu? I gotcha covered. In Fedora? Same deal. In Xandros EeePC? Well, it’s a weird combination of 2 applications that both sit in the task bar. It’s almost familiar, but not quite.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m happy vendors are pre-installing Linux. I’m not even angry that the versions are highly customized. It just takes more learning on the part of Linux geeks that get asked support questions. I’m curious, how do the Linux Journal readers feel about the new GUI interfaces on Linux netbooks? Are they a wise move by vendors, or are the straight up Linux installs with Gnome or KDE a better decision?


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.


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Aspire One users

Scruffy's picture

Send Aspire One users here: http://www.aspireoneuser.com/forum/

Did that answer your question?

mixed opinions

Jeff's picture

I'm all for the custom GUI. I'm even all for the lower-level patches. But I don't like how some of the netbook distros seem to reinvent the wheel.

As a new Aspire One owner, it's frustrating. Yes, it boots damn quick. Yes, the "home" page is almost idiot-proof. But they changed enough to infuriate me. I don't really want to change distros, because then I'll have to manually optimize it for quicker start-ups and jump through some hoops to get the hardware working. However, as something of a power-user, I feel like Linpus is tying my hands behind my back. Even with the Livna repository set up, I'm still having a rough time installing VLC or upgrading MPlayer because the dependencies of the newer versions conflict so harshly with what's already installed.

So, the GUI tweaks are fine. The hardware optimizations are fine. But they need to know when to quit.

I think it is a good but frustrating thing

LaRue's picture

Preinstalled linux has been quite helpful for me to get more linux more of a foothold in my company. We have always had linux in the server room and we have been trying to get it onto the floor for a while now but have met many roadblocks.
When the president of the company needed a new laptop and he came to me asking if the Aspire One would be good I was surprised (for some reason he loves tiny laptops and he only wanted the Aspire One because it was little). I totally supported him and helped him on his way. The customized layout is just right for him. He feels like he can't do any damage to the laptop but can do everything he wants and needs. He is quite happy with it.
For me it has been a pain to add any programs and get icons working (that was a week long ordeal). There were not many resources for me to use those first two weeks. But now that I have it running and setup on the "backend" the way I like it is better. It would be nice if at least the new netbooks came with some little line in the manual on how to get to the full functionality of whatever distro they used instead of having me fruitlessly search the web.
Even with all the pain that his netbook has given me, I totally believe it is an awesome product and built right for the casual user and I still want one of my own for Christmas.

Good for some, problem for most

Jason Antman's picture

From a vendor's point of view, it probably seems a good idea. However, there are two major problems that I see in it. Firstly, while there aren't a gigantic number of people that can give aid with Linux, there are quite a few - especially in one of the hottest areas (that I've seen) for the eeePC, colleges and universities. Unless the vendor is prepared to offer high-quality OS and application tech support, they should do all they can to make use of whatever Linux support resources already exist. Ubuntu is becoming increasingly common, so the best move (in my mind) would be to re-brand Ubuntu, but keep the functionality the same, therefore making use of (arguably) a relatively large experience base, by Linux standards. If you're a hardware company, and don't focus on providing (software) technical support, the smartest thing to do is to try and maximize the amount of third-party software support that's available.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we've finally started to reach a time when Linux is becoming standardized. Most popular distros follow (more-or-less) the LSB specification, and Gnome and KDE have become the accepted standards for pretty much all non-geek graphical environments. It's taken years to reach this point, and the introduction of mass-market netbooks, many with their own customized distros, is not helping, nor is it smart on the manufacturers' part.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the manufacturers themselves just see Linux as an OS that doesn't cost them anything, without seeing the big picture. If they truly understood Free software, they'd be working to improve on existing technology, while retaining the existing code as a base, rather than struggling to differentiate their offering. If I was to start selling Linux-based netbooks, I think the solution is quite simple, just by following the trends in the Linux world: sell a "business" version that runs RedHat or CentOS, maybe SuSE, and a "consumer" version that has Ubuntu (which, as far as I've seen, is the most popular with the non-linux crowd). Rather than trying to build my own distro and differentiate it from everything else, I'd build on what little Linux experience the general public has, by using the most common distros. If the marketing guys want differentiation so badly, that's the wonder of Free software - just add vendor-specific logos and a custom theme.

On a personal note, I've had an eeePC 701G Surf since December 2007. The *first* thing I did when I got it was create a 4GB SDHC card with a full install of my favorite distro, and set it up to boot from the SDHC. I haven't booted Xandros more than twice. Even the "expert" mode, which is somewhat like a normal desktop environment, is severely lacking in common tools, administrative tools, and security (the user separation is abysmal). I would've been much more happy to see it ship with a good install of Ubuntu, even locked down with a "simple" desktop for the default user. Things like sed, awk, grep, and an SSH server should be instaled on every Linux system. Also, just a theory - set each system to have a unique, randomly generated root password, and print it on a label on the bottom of the machine.

I think this is a good thing

Brandon's picture


I think this is a good thing, so long as the Choice remains,
providing that customized interface proves to the users that
this is a truly customizable device, but the vendor should ensure
that the ability to install and use other interfaces is not only
available, but encouraged, and provide easy access tools to assist
the new users in exploring those choices.

Additionally, the creators of these custom interface's should rely
on the use of existing tool kits, and frame works, which will
further impress the users, and other developers, with the extream
flexibility and utility of the FOSS development methodology versus
the proprietary, were making such radical changes is difficult
if not entirely impossible, and generally very expensive.

its belonging

Eeevil's picture

each one has there own little cult. and the cult will tel you what you need. i found eeebuntu-remix, along with a whole group of ppl who were really i to their eee's. (a nice switch from always feeling like a pariah when i ask for Linux help. my g/f found one for her acer, and im sure the other netbooks all have their own groups. the thing about the netbook is its an identity thing. like those kids who mod Honda civics. if you need to point some one to help; find the online cult fr the particular unit. if the asker hasn't found a group yet they are missing over half the joy of owning one. sad really.

I don't mind as long as...

echodots's picture

I don't mind at all. Just as long as I can still rearrange the icons and even switch GUI themes from one look to another.

It's hard to remember that simple is better for non-geeks, look at the Mac as an example.

I'm OK with customization

MadKat97's picture

New users will find the customized UI easier to navigate. Geeks will quickly learn how to tear off the covers and find the real stuff underneath.

Of course!

augmentedfourth's picture

The first thing I did with my ASUS EEE 900 20GB was reformat it and put Ubuntu on it... of course, I played with the custom Xandros a bit first, but it was too frustrating for words. If I hadn't used Linux before I'm sure it would have been fine, but I already know how I like things and all the roadblocks felt much too restrictive.

I don't know

Khurt's picture

I can only assume that the vendors are installing and customizing Linux to create a smooth user experience for their customers. After all if Linux is so great that we think our non-technical friends and family should be running it then none of this would be an issue. Ease of use ( "It just work" ) is why some people ( myself included ) by Macs.

What do you think OS X is,

Hatta's picture

What do you think OS X is, except a version of UNIX customized by a vendor to create a smooth user experience for their customers?

And experienced users often find that OS X ties their hands in the same way that these custom linux distros do. For instance, I never ever want to see a file window with anything except a list view. It's a lot easier to find a file in a one dimensional list, than a 2 dimensional space. As far as I can tell there's no way to tell Finder to open all directories in list view mode. That's supposed to be easy to use?

but then again...

lapubell's picture

there are still those few people out there that are so new to computers that they still don't know what they are dealing with. I have seen my fair share of OSX computers with a whatever.exe on their desktop and the people are not sure why it won't install (they even dragged it to their applications menu and everything...). Reciently there was a gentalmen in my office that didn't understand that once you copied something, you can paste it more than once. We sat there as he would copy one line of text, paste it, copy the same line again, paste it somewhere else... you get the idea.

As easy as the UI can get, there still needs to be education. I like Macs, I love Linux, and Windows has it's purpose (running games and quickbooks).

My solution to this, have the vendors release the iso of the distro. Then we can all VirtualBox the OS that they are running and get as familiar as we want to with it. They could also just release a package that would patch the main distro to their version (the EEECrossover package for Xandros, for example). This of course would really make things weird if they chage around a lot of packages.