How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?

How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?

Summary: There are two ways to address this problem, consolidation among distros in the consumer space or a consensus among consumer distros on how they will add software.


SUSE vs. Ubuntu logosOne thing I have learned in covering Linux laptops is that your distro matters.

It's because your distro makes such a difference that a netbook's entire software bundle is key to its success -- what you see is truly going to be what you get.

Over the years a bunch of folks have sold manufacturers on the wisdom of their distros for desktop use.

The Asus unit I last reviewed ran Xandros. Others run Debian. Apricot tried SUSE, and the new Dell Inspiron Mini runs Ubuntu. Last year Dell tried Red Hat.

But those problems adding software add up to one big headache. Each distro does this in its own way. Each application supporting Linux must have packages supporting multiple distros. (Picture from the Suseblog.)

I don't think this is much of a problem in the server space, where people are dedicated to learning the ins and outs of their operating system and the command line is your friend.

It is obviously a huge problem, a continuing problem, in the consumer space, where the large number of distros are leading to consumer confusion. (I'm a consumer and I'm confused. Chances are others are, too.)

There are two ways to address this problem:

  1. Consolidation among distros in the consumer space.
  2. A consensus among consumer distros on how they will add software.

All this is complicated somewhat by the continuing KDE vs. GNOME difference. Both have their advocates and advantages. KDE is prettier, GNOME lighter. If they weren't focusing on the same markets life would be easier.

I have long been a fan of Ubuntu as a desktop Linux, if for no other reason than Canonical concentrates hard on the market and works to find solutions.

But what do you think? [poll id=92]

Topics: IT Employment, CXO, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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  • So what exactly is the problem?

    Do a little research on the device you're buying, and make sure it comes with the software you want. If you're an RPM guy, don't by the Ubuntu-based netbook.

    Don't you do research before you buy a TV, or a car, or even a cell phone? I hope you don't just swallow what the salesperson is feeding you...
    Real World
    • Missed the point

      From a sales perspective, the POINT is that too many distros will fragment the market and confuse customers.

      From a user perspective, getting 3 people in a room with 3 different netbooks shouldn't mean 3 different ways of doing things.

      From support perspective, companies will be forced to "lock-in" certain brand/distro combinations because they won't want to support one or two versions of Windows, one version of OSX, and 4 version of Linux (Ubuntu/Red Hat/Xandros/Suse).

      I don't understand why the Linux community can't comprehend marketing 101. Spawning a new distro is NOT the solution to every problem.
      • Touche

        I'm not advocating starting a new distro to solve a problem. All I'm saying is that I don't see the difference between a market where 10 netbook models come with 8 different distros and a market where 10 netbook models come with 2 different distros. Compare it to cell phones. Does it matter what OS your phone runs? You learn to use it, figure out how to do what you want, and don't worry about it further. Although not the same, I see the netbook market as similar.

        Choice is good, no?
        Real World
      • The programs are all the same

        at least as much as they are in the Windows world. The user interface is really the only difference. And since they all take about 30 seconds to figure out, I don't see it as such a great barrier. As long as the programs themselves work the same across the board (and they do) that'll be all that matters in the end.
        Michael Kelly
        • I don?t see the problem

          They are all very nearly alike. Maybe other programs that come with the distribution are bothering the writer. Maybe he can?t figure out StarOffice and would like OpenOffice. Or some other program that he has seen on one linux machine and not on another. But that?s the good thing about linux you can take StarOffice off and put OpenOffice on without it costing anything. The other way around might cost the price of StarOffice.
          • StarOffice and OpenOffice...

            are actually the same animal. StarOffice is the pay version that comes with some proprietary 3rd party support with such things as templates and wizards and other extras. OpenOffice is all open source. The base for both is Sun Microsystems software.
  • You really ought to check out Ubuntu Eee

    I had originally installed a basic Kubuntu install on my Eee, with Ubuntu being so easy to use and being desktop friendly and KDE being my desktop manager of choice. But that required quite a bit of fiddling to get the wireless going, and a kernel update meant I had to do some more fiddling to fix it. So rather than do that knowing I'd have to keep doing it over again until Ubuntu got the right binary drivers in their distro proper, I gave [url=]Ubuntu Eee[/url] a shot.

    This is the first time I've ever seen a Gnome setup that I actually liked. It doesn't even use the normal desktop, it uses a bunch of packages known collectively as [url=]Netbook Remix[/url] which gives you a much different interface than the normal desktop icons ans start menu we are used to, but rather the entire desktop has everything you need within about two clicks (and you can make it one click by selecting some programs as Favorites). And it keeps programs maximized, which is useful on a tiny screen. For a netbook with such limited real estate on the desktop this is an excellent solution, and it shows the ingenuity of the F/OSS crowd.

    Also, dare I mention, it's a very easy install as long as you mind the installation instructions if you are doing the installation via USB stick.

    Edit: Also, dare I mention, ALL the hardware worked right away, even the wireless LAN and the webcam.
    Michael Kelly
  • The packaging issue is a problem

    As is the fact that the sysadmin interface has always been where Linux distros (like UNIXes generally) differ most. A set of standard sysadmin tools that are easier to learn than ifconfig and friends would be very welcome.

    Fortunately, most distros use either RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) or the Debian apt-get system (but Slackware and Gentoo each has its own package manager) and nearly all that I've encountered have tools for converting between the more common package formats to the native one (the Debian alien utility is very nice; as is Slackware's rpm2tgz).

    The Linux Standard Base (LSB) specifies RPM as the standard packaging system, but non-RPM distros (to include Debian derivatives like Ubuntu) have been very reluctant to abandon their traditional package managers in its favor.
    John L. Ries
  • How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?

    The answer should be obvious, as many as the market will bear. ;)
  • RE: How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?

    Let the market decide. There are only so many systems that an entrepreneurial market can support. However, the number of distributions that can exist in freedom is unlimited. The geeks will forever want their freedom. Let them have it. Let the market forces decide how many distros and how long they survive. Who could care less whether it follows traditional market patterns or not? This stuff is carving out and defining new markets all the time, even if they can barely be measured by traditional methods. Let it be, and use whatever you like, whether it be a Linux distro, a BSD system, a UNIX system, a Mac system, or even Windows. Choice is good; let things sort THEMSELVES out - they will, believe me!
    • Linux is for geeks

      I don't think Linux will be a viable consumer product when the driving point is to let geeks have their freedom. I sell a vertical market package. Until I can sell one Linux version withone installer that works on any Linux distro, I'm not making a Linux version. I was pretty serious about it and spent some time and money on Red Hat developmenet around version 6. It then became apparent that the Linux was gong the "flavors of Unix" route. I got off that bus 30 years ago when Microsoft got us to a standard way to do many things.

      My vote is for one conusmer version of Linux. I don't care if there are 1,000 geek versions. My customer needs to be able to go to Costco or Circuit City and buy the current box and have it work.
      • Linux is not only for geeks, anymore..

        And not actually a product, more of a resource.
        Although can be implemented as part of a product.

        As a Resource, "the market" created by the powers that be, has generally ignored, or discounted growing Linux use, especially on the desktop.

        It is no wonder when more than 90%+ of the apps or tools one might need, come with the distro, is in its respective repository, or can be downloaded, all for free......

        There is a lack of awareness of Commercial software available... There are some/many, there should be more. They do mostly tend to be specialized to specific tech/science/enterprise niches.

        I take it you are a developer?
        I do question your sense of history & understanding of Linux...

        30 years ago, Nov 1st, 1978.........
        MS was Founded, Primarily doing BASIC for MITS/Altair 8800. happy B-day BTW.

        20 years ago........"88
        DOS was common, several different providers (DR-DOS etc). Windows had started to emerge (Win286) a useful toy, yet their were many commercial alternatives & Systems, Amiga, AIX, AUX. AT&T Unix, BSD, DEC, HP, Irix, Mac, Novell, NeXt, OS/2, Radio Shack, Sun, Xenix etc & GEM, GEOS, NewWave etc.

        10 years ago.......'98
        Windows (95, NT, 98) became common, yet up to/until this time. DOS was still Prevalent especially for Business & Games. There was also BeOS. Linux started to emerge on the desktop With more user friendly distros Like; Mandrake & Corel Linux.

        From My POV Windows only hit the big time a little more than a decade ago. Primarily because of the Web & questionable business practices?

        So I seriously question your Comment:
        "I got off that bus 30 years ago when Microsoft got us to a standard way to do many things."

        (RH 6.0 is that not before the turn of the century?)

        As to Making Commercial apps for Linux....
        Linux is pretty much all the same. It is not likely you will make it available in a Free repository. And if you don't wish to use/contribute to LGPL, make your own Libraries. If you don't want to write Scripts for installation, (for your Commercial Software) You can buy commercial install routines.

        The few I wanted to purchase had no problems...
        (it is avaiable for Free for just today)

        Sorry for the Rant.......
      • But You Aren't a Netbook OEM

        Netbooks are intended to be appliances. Sure, you CAN add more software to them if you try really hard, but the manufacturers made them with the intention that you wouldn't. They are complete, just like your router, and just like your router, you can rip out the guts and put something else on, but who wants to do that and who really cares what OS it runs?
  • What's needed is just one or two

    Joe 6 HD distros. We need just a couple or so that caters to the Windows users who want a linux "Windows". Hence those distros should resolve to make a unified installing system, and push that.

    I'm now using Kubuntu 8.04.1, w/KDE 4. I'm happy with it now, and most of the time I can install programs via the installer (which I couldn't do with Debian 4, and other distros) I'm thinking that this will be the linux that will take me away from Windows for good.

    The OS shouldn't matter, since it's suppose to be in the background. The programs matter, and since OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, and many, many other programs do the same or better job than propriotory programs do, then I can stick with linux.

    I relieze there is people who want a linux they can spend days, weeks months working on. That's fine, and I'd be one, but anymore I'm past that and I want an OS that *works*. Hence I want a linux "Windows" But for the geeks, let them continue to have Debian, RedHat, Slackware, even BSD if they want, and have all the programs in all sorts of ways to install.

    After all, it's our choice.

    - Kc
  • RE: How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?

    It can be quite a dicey problem. It's not dissimilar to the Windows vs MacOS situation in terms of where software makers had to decide whether it was more profitable to make software exclusively for one OS or make them for both.

    In the Linux case, it's a much more complex question. But the solutions are pretty much the same, as you outlined in the article. I'd like to point out that the makers of Linspire have create a one-click installation system for Linux called the Click-N-Run Library, but it is primarily for Debian based Linux distros. If there could be a larger version of such an idea to cover Red Hat and Suse based OSes then that would be a great solution to the issue.
  • Linux Distro's on Netbooks

    Linux Distro?s On Netbooks
    I was reading a blog by Dana Blankenhorn over at ZDNet about the topic, ?How many distros can a healthy netbook market stand?? Well apparently Dana does not understand how the free market works. The market will bear exactly what the market needs. Lets face it, if a person is really considering a Netbook with a Linux distro, chances are they already know there way around Linux distro?s, or have no clue. Either way, it doesn?t really matter to the market.

    Let?s explore the first example. The user already know his or her way around Linux fairly well. These people are either programmers or savvy enough to know what makes Linux superior to Windows platforms:

    [b]Reliability[/b] - These machines will run for a year at a time without a hiccup or a reboot. These machines rarely fail to the point that they need to have the software re-installed. Have you ever talked to an IT guy that manages a lot of workstations and the required servers for them? They are always busy, always rebuilding, and always working harder in more hours than the Linux tech support guy.
    [b]Performance[/b] - Lets face it, Vista completely sucks the life out of any computer. Even when compared to XP or an NT platform, Vista was not designed around performance. Performance designed around Vista. Not so with a Linux distro. The Linux kernel is to a world class sprinter where Vista is to a WWF wrestler. The mass of the public will ooh and ahh over the bulky wrestler and all of his showmanship. But the true sportsman recognizes the sprinter as the world class athlete that gets little attention in comparison.
    [b]Portability[/b] - Open source is the key to portability. On the Linux distro, you can read, open, view, and manipulate every type of file except for a couple Microsoft proprietary file extensions. If for some reason you get a file that your distro doesn?t have the correct application to open it, you simply download a FREE application that installs itself, and doesn?t give you any errors.
    So given these three reasons, the person who is already proficient with a Linux distro doesn?t care how many different distro?s are out there. He or she will choose what ever notebook fit?s their needs or price range. This is because they aren?t scared to learn something new, or they will just install the distro they prefer using. Either way, they are up an running inside one day.

    Let?s look at the second group of people. Chances are they have been running Vista for a while and are just plain tired of all the crap that comes with running this pseudo-OS. Or maybe they are Mac users looking for something a little different than they are already using that is far more affordable. What draws them into a Linux distro?

    [b]Ease of use[/b] - On the surface, a Linux distro looks and acts similar to an Apple or Microsoft OS. It navigates similarly, it is easy to figure out how to change the appearance and performance of the desktop, and there is enough documentation out there to guide the new user along. New users are often astonished that there are communities of people that will assist them with just about any question or problem they have.
    [b]Portability[/b] - The Linux distros in the netbook market offer just about every program that the average business user would need away from the office. There are the general office progams, such as a presentation, spreadsheet, and word processing apps that allow the user to create or view these document types. There is a Mozilla based web browser which is inherently safer and faster than IE. Every distro has an email client that is no more dificult to set up than Outlook. Media players handle every coded under the sun; unlike Windows Media Player which forces the user to download codecs it doesn?t natively support. Add networking and wireless capabilites and you are ready to travel.
    [b]Price[/b] - Lets face it, you can run a Linux distro on half of what is acceptable for a Vista machine. The laptop that I use to create and edit pages on this website is a PIII 850MHZ, with 256MB of RAM and a 40 gig 5400 RPM drive. You would have a hard time running XP on this machine, would probably wouldn?t be able to even install Vista. But a P4 1.2 GHZ laptop with 512MB RAM and a 60 GB drive is plenty powerful enough to run a Linux distro with Open Office Doc Editor, a email client, and a web browser running simultaneously. All of this for under $500 and you can see why this makes for a great deal.
    So does this translate into sales in the market place. Dell and Asus think so. If one of the largest motherboard and computer manufactures are investing time and money into them, then you really should start paying attention the addage that, ?More does not necesarily mean better.? Either way, now that Linux has it?s foot in the notebook door, and it will enter into the mainstream computing world.
  • Ubuntu has bug issues

    Well i just downloaded Ubuntu onto my Acer one ZG5,and it works great,when i first installed it,it took ages for itself to update and upgrade by terminal,and when i did that,i had to install the wireless drivers,it gave me two options,windows drivers,or Linux drivers,so i choose d Linux,what is a pain in the ass,i had to re-install the wireless drivers every time the computer does an update,which is annoying,because if i don't,then i wont have wireless,another thing is,it will not show you the wireless network when it does a scan,you have to manually tell the computer the name of the wireless,and the wep key,whats more if it cant find the wireless network,you have to go and remove the found wireless networks,and then reboot,so when it restarts,it will begin asking the for the network and network key.Ubuntu has full of bugs,but if you love problem solving then Ubuntu is for you,it would not be classed as professional,so your better off staying with Windows,if you don't want your business going down the drain,a lot of hackers are taking advantage of what Ubuntu has to just be care full,whats good about Linux is it it Immune to Windows viruses and Trojans,and other dangerous programs,which is great!!,it takes a little getting use to,and if you are a beginner it takes time.what annoys me about Ubuntu is that it is very terminal dependent,and it is not for every one,alot of people will become irritated with Ubuntu,and linux.
    • Wireless

      Yeah, I had a problem with wireless and it is
      something that is really being addressed right now.
      The problem is writing drivers that will work with all
      the different wireless cards out there. Go over to and find your answers. You can find
      lists of wireless cards that are plug and play. There
      are also a lot of people that will go out of their way
      to help you. Best of luck.

    • Yarp

      But the idea with OEM installation is that all is configured to the OS.

      Some brands of hardware are very linux-unfriendly, and need work-arounds to - well, work. Others work without any complex configuration (Try 3G wireless with the latest Ubuntu).

      A netbook pre-installed with Ubuntu should have hardware chosen to work well with Ubuntu. Same with other linux distros.