Where Do YOU Send Netbook Users For Help?

by Shawn Powers

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?