Do people who pay $299 to $399 for a Linux notebook suffer greater levels of buyer's remorse compared to those buying Windows machines?
According to MSI's U.S. sales director Andy Tung this seems to be the case:
"We have done a lot of studies on the return rates and haven't really talked about it much until now. Our internal research has shown that the return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks, but the main cause of that is Linux. People would love to pay $299 or $399 but they don't know what they get until they open the box. They start playing around with Linux and start realizing that it's not what they are used to. They don't want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks." [Emphasis added]
So, people are attracted by the price, get the machine home, unpack it and fire it up. They then quickly figure out that the system isn't booting up into Windows as expected and realize that while the price is right, they'd rather pay more for what they are used to. Put another way, what's happening is that the wrong kind of users are being attracted to these machines based solely on price, but these folks aren't willing to put in the effort to learn how to use Linux and find free alternatives to the software that they are used to paying for.
I've touched on the idea that this could be a stumbling block for Linux several times before, so it's interesting to see an OEM confirming this. It also echos Wal-Mart's Linux PC trials, which ended after Wal-Mart concluded that Linux wasn't what their customers wanted. I wonder if Wal-Mart came to this conclusion based on returns.
I've not handled a Linux MSI Wind netbook but I'm also willing to put a few bucks down as a bet that MSI haven't put in enough effort into making the the system user-friendly to those not coming from a Linux background. If returns really are four times higher for Linux compared to XP then something is really wrong with the way that the OS is being presented to newbies. Sure, some will never overcome the activation energy required to embrace a new OS (which is exactly the problem that Windows Vista is having ), but for most users Linux would make an ideal OS for a netbook. Sure, it's not Windows and never will be, but it's not hard to find applications (free applications) that will make the OS workable.
How do you sell Linux-based systems cheaper than the Windows counterparts without attracting the wrong kind of buyer? How do you get people to accept a multitude of operating systems being available for PCs in the same way as on their cell phones?
[UPDATE: Ed Bott picks up on this story. Overall I agree with what Ed says, especially when it comes to people valuing their time and that people are happy with what they already know (but that's an argument that plays right into the hands of those who want to stick with XP and not make the shift to Vista). However, I am bothered by one point he makes:
"And this is for a product that is targeted at early adopters who are far more technically sophisticated than average; the MSI Wind is a tiny, dirt-cheap portable PC that has been selling like gangbusters to the digital elite and gadget freaks since its launch in June."
I can find nothing to indicate that these netbooks are being bought exclusively by "early adopters who are far more technically sophisticated than average." These netbooks are dirt cheap and I think that this makes the device attractive to average users - if these devices were aimed at early adopters I'd expect the price to be a lot higher.
Ed also mentions "rough edges and usability gotchas" but I think that we need to be careful here - we have no data relating to why the Linux systems are being returned.
I also think that we need to be careful how much we read into these returns numbers. I would imagine that even when dealing with four times the returns on an XP netbook, we're still looking at quite low numbers in real terms.]