Carphone Warehouse, netbooks and GNU/Linux: an inquest

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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.



lyle howard seave's picture

I've been doing Linux installs for friends, family and different non-profits for a few years and whenever I've give Live CDs to people who are new to Gnu-Linux over 3/4 choose KDE.
I try to make it as recognizable as possible to them and that means making it look like Windows. Heck, I even give them the XP tacky blue if they so desire.
Its about making it easier for the user.

As someone who uses KDE, E17, XCFE, Gnome, XP, Vista and OS10 during the day, GUIs means little to me. Most of my desktops consists of the same wallpaper of my kids, have 6 icons and a disappearing taskbar so they often look identical but I work with enough Gnu-Linux newbies that I have gotten to know what makes the feel more confortable and what stumps them.

Gnu-Linux desktops are not harder to use that Mac. Different is just different and that enough is barrier to switching over and I think that KDE would make it easier for transitioning people over.

This isnt about which desktop is 'better', this is about which desktop can make the switch easier, which desktop can look like the Windows they are used to. Yes, even Vista.

What I would like to see from distros and even software is easy modes like the netbooks have.
Give the full monty OS but also have an easy mode for newbies to transition them easily to Gnu-Linux (I know a lot of Acer and Dell users who just use the easy mode. its enough for them). They can then stay with it or eventually see what the whole OS has to offer.

Imagine the same for software where a program like Audacity and KDEnlive has an easy mode for people who just want to do the basic 5 most used features like the fruit company does but one click allows those who want more to use the full program.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Despite what my colleague Ryan Cartwright has said ... Economic circumstances may be propitious but, given user resistance, these are not the conditions for the perfect Linux storm

Hmm I'm not so sure we disagree here. I didn't say that the economic downturn would provide conditions for any kind of "Linux storm". I actually said ..

I also suspect that desktops (and laptops, net-books etc.) running a free operating systems would have increased this year anyway. It seems to have been heading that way despite any economic downturn. ... I see no reason why a change in economic circumstances would alter that trend.

My argument was actually that take-up of free software is on the increase year-on-year and an economic downturn would not prove a catalyst to speed that up.

As for vendors treating users like new-born kittens : yes they do and will continue to do so until (unless?) those customers vote with their feet. There has always been a section of the IT sales industry which wants to commodotise the computer. Those who want to turn it into a turnkey device akin to a TV (which is ironic seeing as most TVs these days have a confusing array of options which are mostly left untouched). As long as the consumer is prepared to be thus treated the vendor will be happy to oblige. But none of that means that Windows is the answer. Microsoft is doing itself no favours with regards ease-of-use. UAC, DRM and indeed the entire mess that is Vista has been a real shot in the foot for those in Redmond. For the first time significant numbers of Windows users are beginning to question the wisdom of using that particular OS. And that's not just the tech-literate ones but the ones who bought their first ever PC from PC-World and didn't even realise it came with Windows (or that there was an alternative).

I've said this before but the days of paid-for, restrictive software licencing are numbered. How long will it take before we see a real change? I don't know. It won't be very soon but the slip has started. If vendors choose to continue to patronise their customers and waste their resources on archaic licencing that will eventually be their downfall as their competitors start to make real savings and real effect by treating their customers as people.



Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom

Terry Hancock's picture

The tabbed interface on the Xandros-based Eee PC makes it practically unusable, IMHO. (Really, Fisher Price should feel insulted by the comparison).

I think sometimes that developers go too far in trying to "dumb down" the interface. After all, the dumbest, easiest-to-use interface is that of a brick. It's also the most pointless!

The value of a UI is not just that it's easy, but that it's easy to do what you want to do.

I can do with my Eee PC exactly what the manufacturer wanted me to be able to do with it, but that isn't much. Nor is it what I want the machine for (it's not even close).

For example, I can't even run gvim on it as it stands now.

My solution of course, will be to reinstall the O/S and put something with a (fairly) conventional KDE front end on it. But this will take some time.

Just getting a terminal emulator is a major pain in the tabbed interface. I go to the "work" tab, click on "File Manager", select "View->Show All Files Systems" (Duh), Browse "up", click on "All File Systems", then browse down to /usr/bin, find "xterm" and double-click! "Piece of cake". Seriously, it's that annoying.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

I used to agree with you but recently I've given EeePC to colleagues who praised the "simplicity" of the interface. The EeePC is not their main computer and their usage of it is generally as a kind of super-PDA.

For some the UI is exactly what they needed and having just those few icons -- reasonably well organised -- makes sense. It drives me nuts but that's because I have an aversion to systems which hide things they think I don't need to see.

As we say over here : horses for courses.

PS: In the standard interface Ctrl+Shift+T gives you a terminal and for the people I give EeePC's to, a terminal would scare the pants off them. That's why I started using zenity.

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Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom

malcarada's picture
Submitted by malcarada on

Linux had a great opportunity with Netbooks, Asus started its netbook with Linux only! And now not only we have Asus netbooks with Windows XP, but this is by far the most sold version of their netbooks.

Linux has failed to capture the netbook market, sad but truth, Joe Doe used Windows at school, at work and at the library, why learn a new OS? Why cant he have his favourite Windows only game/application?

Oh yes, Linux has better alternatives for those applications, but Joe Doe does not have the time neither the interest in learning something new.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

You write a lot about the opportunities and chances that "Linux" has/had but to whom are you referring? There is no central body that markets GNU/Linux so who exactly has missed these opportunities?

The distributions ? -- They don't make the hardware and the people that do have grown up on a diet of Microsoft OEM discounts, it will take them a while to take huge risks. Make no mistake Asus' aim with the EeePC was to raise the profile of Asus -- nobody else. Microsoft saw what was happening and stepped in to woo Asus: Asus have revealed their nature but you know what? That's fine. Canonical have launched the netbook version of Ubuntu and -- from what I can tell -- are keen to work with companies like Asus & Dell.

The community ? -- We can't agree on what browser we should specify as default -- let alone how to market a distribution. And you know what: we shouldn't have to -- that's the point. Free software works best when it's not embroiled in a beauty contest.

So let's stop referring to "Linux" as an entity/body/company that can make such decisions and can relate to outdated concepts like marketing and OEM licencing. If "Joe Doe" doesn't care about what OS he uses that's up to him -- and it always should be. Free software is not about money, it's not about making money from "products", it's not about selling, it's not about reacting to "market" forces and it's not about telling customers what they should be thinking. It's about giving Joe an option, it's about giving him real choices and power over his computer and it doesn't fit into a 20th century model of software.

Those Asus netbooks running an 8 year old operating system can be upgraded quite simply to a more modern one you know -- and at zero cost. Also have you noticed that as soon as Windows got involved the "lightweight" and "handy" netbooks started getting faster CPUs, more RAM, increased storage space and a higher price tag. Why would Joe Doe spend £300 on a netbook when he can buy a £360 notebook? He may be too lazy to learn a new OS but I'll bet the salesperson will still be able to direct him towards a Vista laptop for an extra £60. Asus hit on a niche in the market and then moved the EeePC out of it. It is -- to my mind -- much more useful as a 1kg super-PDA than as a 2kg mini-notebook.

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Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom

Terry Hancock's picture

I have to agree on the significance of the market niche that the early "netbook" computers struck. As a matter of fact, I do not and will not carry a "conventional" PDA, and I don't like "smart phones". The reason is simple: I can't stand the crippled interface. I want something with a keyboard.

I also want something fully programmable, and that's where GNU/Linux takes the cake.

The point is, as I said in my previous post: no manufacturer out there really understands what I need from my "PDA". I don't really even want them to. I want to have the freedom to make it do what I want.

I might use a laptop, but it would be overkill for my needs: too heavy, too fragile, and too expensive. I don't want to be burdened by one (neither physically due to the weight or psychologically due to the expense and fragility).

Where the netbooks need to go is downscale integration with PDA-like devices: inclusion of camera and phone features, and increased battery life to facilitate daily and travel use without relying so heavily on charging. This way you could opt to carry a netbook instead of carrying several separate devices.

You know what we're looking for here is a tricorder. I don't know why the manufacturers can't see that -- did they not watch Star Trek when they were kids or what? I'm pretty happy with my communicator. Phasers will have to wait, I suppose. :-) (Oh wait, I have got that laser pointer keychain...).

Terry Hancock's picture

Well, I won't argue... having only a few buttons to worry about is good. Especially when the screen and keyboard are small. A "super PDA" is exactly how I see the Eee. It's just that for my needs, the buttons provided are the wrong buttons. :-)

And of course, with desktop icons and launcher bar, KDE can give you very nearly the same level of simplicity as the Eee's tabbed interface, but with the flexibility to pick which buttons you want (and even change them from time to time as needed).

In fact, I really think the tabs would be fine, if I could just figure out how to add new application buttons and/or tabs to them. It's not being able to edit them that is frustrating. I suppose there's probably a configuration file in /etc somewhere, though I haven't gone looking for it.

In the standard interface Ctrl+Shift+T gives you a terminal

Now I find out. Thanks for the tip! :-D

What I can't figure out now is what hotkey I keep hitting that throws the keyboard into kinput/Kanji mode. Whatever it is, it doesn't work the way my desktop system does (on which I use canna and kinput2-canna for Japanese text). I mean it's nice that I can type kanji, but most of the time, I still want "romaji" (Western characters). It's so frustrating, because the only way I know to stop it is to launch a new terminal. :-/

I'm figuring it'll all change when I reinstall the O/S, though.

alexa's picture
Submitted by alexa on

My experience has been that the biggest challenge that great ideas have is nobody seems to have enough free time to head them up and develop them. Not complaining just observing.
caderea parului

Author information

Gary Richmond's picture


A retired but passionate user of free and open source for nearly ten years, novice Python programmer, Ubuntu user, musical wanabee when "playing" piano and guitar. When not torturing musical instruments, rumoured to be translating Vogon poetry into Swahili.