Carphone Warehouse, netbooks and GNU/Linux: an inquest

I was browsing around my local Carphone Warehouse shop last week. Unlike the last time I crossed their threshold (November) I noticed that their Ubuntu netbook display had vanished. There was only one netbook on display and it was advertised as running Windows XP. Their website also advertised the Asus EeePC with Windows XP too. I approached a sales person to ask about a GNU/Linux option on the Elonex and was informed that they no longer stocked them. What when wrong? I decided to investigate.

What went wrong?

This problem goes back to November when conflicting reports emerged that customers who purchased their WebBook as they called it, hosting Ubuntu on an Elonex white machine, were reported as returning them in numbers up to 20%. There were further reports that not only had the machines been returned by disgruntled customers but that Carphone Warehouse had actually recalled all machines running Ubuntu. Carphone Warehouse have denied this but the rumours persisted and at any rate I only saw Windows netbooks (and if you visit to their UK website you will search in vain for anything with GNU/Linux installed on it).

The main problem as reported seems to be that once purchasers got their netbooks home and started exploring the pre-installed GNU/Linux they couldn't cope with it. "Unfamiliar" and "confusing" were two of the words used and "an issue of consumer understanding". It wasn't what they were used to, apparently. A number of questions immediately spring to mind: first, these machines came with Ubuntu, a version of GNU/Linux that, whatever else you say about it, couldn't be more user friendly to free software novices. Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical have bent over backwards to make it easy to use. Many geeks/power users think it has gone too far in making concessions to first time users of GNU/Linux in terms of emphasizing the GUI and burying the command line but they know that if Windows users are ever to jump ship the plunge has to be as easy and painless as possible.

It can't be beyond Windows users to find their way around without the equivalent of Sat Nav

No novice is going to dip their toes in the water with distros like pure Debian or Gentoo. So, why are unhappy buyers returning their purchases? Did the sales people at Carphone Warehouse not explain to prospective buyers that they would be using Ubuntu and give a quick demo? I understand that there was no official link up with Canonical on promoting Ubuntu and that may have been detrimental to promoting it in terms of educating users. Any Windows user would at home with the Gnome or Kubuntu interface in terms of the start menu and the programmes listed therein, so it can't be beyond them to find their way around without the equivalent of Sat Nav. That raises the second question: since Carphone Warehouse were selling these netbooks as part of their mobile internet package (sign up for a mobile contract and get the computer free or just buy it stand alone), did they ensure that Ubuntu came with out of the box functionality? In other words, did the wireless card and the mobile internet just work without the user requiring specialist GNU/Linux skills?

If this answer is yes then I cannot see what the problem was for the average Windows user. However, some users have reported problems in that area. Hardy Heron was the Ubuntu version on their netbook; although my mobile internet (3G) worked more or less out of the box with Intrepid Ibex (four mouse clicks to get online) it seems it may not have with the earlier version of Ubuntu. Surely Carphone Warehouse would not have started selling this machine without ensuring out of the box compatibility with wireless and mobile internet working? Did Carphone Warehouse get their marketing right, or was there just no proper marketing, full stop?

If the product fails, change the consumer?

The only problem that might have flummoxed the average Windows refugee would have been installing software on the command line or via Synaptic. I'll give you that. The sad truth is that there is a limit to how transparent you can make a distribution for new users. That is perhaps why Carphone Warehouse should have linked up with Canonical to ensure that users had a relatively painless introduction to software management on their netbooks. Of all the things that confuse Windows users most it seems to be installing software.

80% did not return their WebBooks. For a distro that many haven't heard of that's really not so bad after all

If there had been a Canonical link up, it would not have been beyond the wit of man to install a default help page after booting up their desktop to explain to users that Ubuntu used something called repositories (pre-installed) as a source of free software which can be installed via a simple GUI called Synaptic and perhaps include a video tutorial to show users how to do it through the GUI or even on the command line (and above all explain about sudo--or su, depending on the distro). Thus, if the wireless/mobile has been pre-configured at point of sale and software installation has been explained, then even the most technologically-challenged Windows users should not be returning their shiny new netbook to the store. As it is, before we are crushed by that 20% return rate we should remember that this means that 80% did not return their purchases. For a distro that many haven't heard of that's really not so bad after all.

This brings me to the third point: I did not actually see Ubuntu Hardy Heron running on that Elonex Whitebook so I don't know if it was the normal Gnome desktop or, like the Asus EeePC Xandros distro or the Acer Inspire One, running a highly customised version of Debian and Fedora respectively. It seems to me that the hardware vendors shipping these machines take a rather patronising view of their prospective customers along the lines that they are too stupid to cope with a conventional GNU/Linux interface. So, they hide it all behind a Fisher Price, tabbed interface which not only looks childish but actually may make understanding more difficult. This "dumbing down" may be predicated on the assumption that netbooks are for viewing whilst laptops are for doing. There is probably some truth in that, though it will not deter free software veterans from tinkering with their machines to do things never intended by the vendors. Nevertheless, even these simple tabbed interfaces may be too much for some users.

Perhaps it is time for the vendors to stop hiding the operating system behind these interfaces. They don't do it for Windows on netbooks. Why not? The obvious reason is that Windows have the overwhelming share of the market in the home and, more importantly,in the office so familiarity is guaranteed--especially with in-house training. So, vendors seem to think that users need to be treated like blind, new-born kittens who have to be taken by the scruff of the neck and have their faces shoved into a bowl of milk for their own good. The only consolation is that if GNU/Linux remains a niche operating system on all hardware platforms, there will at least be relative safety in small numbers. I sometimes shudder to think what would happen if free software achieved critical mass density and Windows users adopted it en masse.

Give me idiot-proof computing or give me death

Despite what my colleague Ryan Cartwright has said about the opportunities for GNU/Linux in an economic downturn (and I think his article certainly has validity) there is no gain saying the determination of Windows users to demand idiot-proof computing on a level that might put idiots to shame and you can't stop them for paying a premium for the privilege. Economic circumstances may be propitious but, given user resistance, these are not the conditions for the perfect Linux storm; although if hardware vendors are trying to cut costs, throwing Microsoft licencing costs overboard would make for significant saving to be passed onto the customer. Ironically, GNU/Linux has done Windows user a big favour as Microsoft had to extend the shelf life of XP to accommodate netbooks and also reduce the cost to OEMs for its licence but this, combined with user resistance may not be the GNU/Linux Trojan horse that some envisage. It could backfire.

We need critical users, not passive consumers, like tethered Beagles in a tobacco laboratory

I hope I am wrong. Netbooks and the current global economy may be the binary combination that changes the rules of the game once and for all but unless and until someone waves a magic wand and transforms Windows users into active, critical users instead of passive consumers like tethered Beagles in a tobacco laboratory GNU/Linux adoption may always be driven by vendor and retail priorities. Meanwhile, for GNU/Linux users netbooks are a gift from the Gods. Let's make the most of them before we all have to buy them with Windows pre-installed, pay for a licence we don't want and install free operating system instead.


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