Bad marketing undermines Linux netbooks

By   |  October 7, 2008

Over the past couple of days the online media has been full of stories of dissatisfied Linux netbook users returning their computers. Bloggers and journalists quickly picked up on the fact that return rates for Linux-based netbooks were apparently much higher than for Windows-based machines.

It seems the origin of the story is an interview with Laptop magazine in which MSI’s Andy Tung said that the “return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks that Windows XP netbooks”. MSI is the maker of the Wind netbook.

On the surface of it that is a disturbing number. The obvious conclusion to jump to is that Linux is a failure on netbooks. It’s obvious, isn’t it? No-one wants Linux on their netbook so they’re all rushing to trade them in.

The truth is likely to be a little more … obvious.

Microsoft controls around 90 percent of the market for desktop PC software. The latest NetApplications survey puts Windows’ market share at 90.29 percent. Linux, on the other hand, accounts for just 0.91 percent of the market. Even Apple’s 8.23 percent share makes Linux look like a non-starter.

We could, of course, squabble endlessly over the merits of this, and other, desktop OS surveys but the truth is that less than one percent of computer users use Linux. The rest are, mostly, Windows users. So when they go online and buy a netbook they probably imagine they are getting Windows with that. When it arrives it looks like nothing they have ever seen before.

Sure, they should have made sure it had Windows before they ordered it but another truth is that 90% of the Windows users probably have no idea that something like Linux even exists. So they return it, looking for a version of software they are more familiar with.

Which is not to say there isn’t a problem here. Canonical’s marketing manager Gerry Carr, admits that there are more Linux-based netbooks being returned. But not because Linux is worse, at least not in any objective sense, but because users are being sucked in by what Carr calls “unclear selling”.

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate the relative successes of Linux. Users who convert to Linux are usually more than happy. But no matter how big we (the Linux community) believe Linux is becoming it is sobering to realise that Linux is used by barely one percent of PC users.

The open source community needs to be doing a lot more marketing to get the message across to make most users even aware that there is an alternative to Microsoft’s Windows on the desktop.



28 Responses to “Bad marketing undermines Linux netbooks”

  1. L
    October 7th, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    W3Counter says that Linux has 2% market share from 1.37 it had one year ago. So Linux usage rises very fast and at this rate it will have 5% in 2 years.
    Also, according to NetApplications, Linux market share doubled last year.

  2. Alastair
    October 7th, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    Sure, there is growth. But then Apple is growing too. Right now Linux is just a tiny fraction of the operating systems out there. Five percent in two years would be great. But it’d still be behind Apple. The simple point is that those of us that use Linux love it. But in the big picture we’re just a tiny blip.

  3. Vadim P.
    October 7th, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    Yeah, I quite agree with this article.

  4. ChrisB
    October 7th, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    As a died-in-the-wool Windows support person / Net admin / systems engineer I find Linux (well, some flavours, obviously) a LOT quicker to get used to – even familiar with – than that spawn of the Devil, Mac OSX. Users who are returning Linux-based machines are whiners – but then, we already know that about users in general, don’t we.

    I honsestly can’t understand the attraction of Mac, apart from the cool design (which doesn’t help you get your damn work done though does it). Talk about control freak mentality! Even worse than Vista!

  5. Herman
    October 7th, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    The funny thing is that Linux is actually the most popular OS ever – in embedded systems. About 300 million Linux devices are made each year. The result is that there are more than 2 billion Linux devices out there, compared to only about 600 million Windows devices.

  6. Alastair
    October 7th, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    Fair point. Maybe as Linux grows on mobile phones as well it’ll help pick up the profile.

  7. Dewald
    October 7th, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    The problem with Linux marketing (and most OSS marketing) is dillusion (and not the mental kind) between the various flavours and distro’s available. Instead of the various OSS vendors and Linux houses working towards a common marketing goal of taking on their main competitor, Windows, there is a lot of internal bickering and show boating between them (the distro’s).

    Once Linux realises that maybe consolidation and aiming towards a common goal would bode the technology well, we could see some serious market share growth for the OS. It is not a question of whether Linux is ready for the desktop environment or not, it’s a question of whether it can outperform it’s competition at what it does best, marketing.

  8. ChrisB
    October 7th, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    *Exactly*. Very well said, Dewald.

    Perhaps the /real/ weakness of the whole “go-to-market” strategy (for want of a better description) of Linux – and OSS software in general – is that they (developers, marketers, everyone involved) are not in it for the money, but for egotistical (or altruistic, which boils down to the same thing) reasons. If there was consolidation a bunch of people would become redundant; if a homogeneous set of interface standards / specs were developed some people’s design(s) would be turfed. Can’t have that! :-)

  9. Lance
    October 7th, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

    I personally thing that when Linux on netbooks has a bright future. As the software interfaces improve people will start to notice. I thought the EE pc system looked too Fisher Price but the Acer one note netbook software is looking better. Wait until Ubuntu gets going on these wow!

  10. O G
    October 8th, 2008 @ 5:01 am

    Geez, where can I get some of those returns? I’ve been trying to get one in Toronto, but everytime I go into a small store to get one that they advertise, they are sold out?!!! I’ll
    gladly take these ‘returns’, at a steep discount, of course…! :-) Let me at ’em! :-)

  11. leftystrat
    October 8th, 2008 @ 5:25 am

    I’m surprised they’re being returned. The thing that knocked me out about the EEE Pc was that it was virtually idiot-proof. And I say that because two of them went into the loaner pool at work, where we have extremely gifted idiots.

    One had Xandros, one was redone with EEE-Ubuntu. At no point did anybody ask what OS was on the machine. They simply sat down and USED it. People are raving about this equipment. Some of these people are terrified of computers. They’re so easy to use that there’s no problem. I would not hesitate to give one to my (infuriatingly under computer-educated) parents.

    I think we’re all missing the point here. This could be the intro to `Linux on the Desktop’ that we keep hearing about. The OSes are so easy to use, so dumbed down, that I can’t imagine the units being returned for this reason.

  12. lunamystry
    October 8th, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    uhm… Kubuntu users here. I love my kubuntu but this article is merely making an excuse as to why the netbooks with Linux are being returned.

    Lets see heres another reason: I had a conversation with a friend of mine and it became apparent to me. He has been using Windows for a very long time while I started using ubuntu on my first PC. I am use to Ubuntu more than windows and he is use to Windows and has all sorts of things he can do with it. He is happy with his system i am happy with mine. Why should I move to windows? Software is readily available. My sister doesn’t use my PC because she is lazy to have to learn a new interface and she is taught on Windows XP at school.

    My point: Why inconvenience myself learning a new OS when I already love my Kubuntu? Windows crashes but without the internet Linux is not very enjoyable (I know).

    Okay I will shut-up now.

  13. Alastair
    October 8th, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    I was not just “making an excuse” for Linux failing. In fact we agree, it appears. You’re used to Linux and so wouldn’t want to switch to Windows. My point was exactly that …just the other way round. +90% of the world is used to Windows. So they really don’t want to switch to Linux. Just like your sister.

  14. lunamystry
    October 8th, 2008 @ 8:08 am

    DAMN!!! I knew I was sticking my foot in my mouth…

    Great blog thanks

  15. Rufus
    October 8th, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    I liked the article and quite agreed with some of its points. However, marketing won’t help.

    There’s a reason why people use Windows or Apple instead of Linux. The higher return rate already indicates that people don’t know about Linux and don’t want to learn it. But why?

    Are they really just lazy? Or do they have better things to do? Like building a business, raising a family, caring for children and partners, or helping neighbors and friends?

    Time is a valueable resource. Why do we expect people to waste it on learning Linux?

    A different question is the following: Is Linux really worth any attention from desktop computer users?

    I’d say No. That’s the real problem.

    Linux lacks compelling reasons for desktop adoption. Sure, there are some nice applications for Linux. But nearly all of the good ones run under Windows as well. On the other hand, Windows provides way more outstanding, industry leading applications that don’t run under Linux.

    If so, why should anybody waste their time on learning Desktop Linux?

    Right now, it’s only an alternative to Windows for those who only use their computers for the basic stuff, anyway. Internet, E-Mail, Writing, etc. People in this group, however, don’t care about Linux. They want what their friends and relatives use so their friends and relatives can help and educate them.

    For those, who do advanced stuff with their desktop computers, Linux lacks high-end applications and informal support material. For peope in this group, Windows or Macs are the better offer. Since these people also recommend operating systems to their friends and relatives, Linux is hardly known by the general population.

    It’s not lack of marketing why Linux is not used on the desktop. It’s the lack of compelling reasons.

  16. Scott
    October 8th, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

    Rufus needs to get a clue.

  17. Dewald
    October 9th, 2008 @ 5:58 am

    @Rufus: My earlier point still stands. Linux is mature and ready for high end applications. Are you a developer? Yes, then Linux will work for you (even if you do use the .NET stack, Mono just released version 2.0, but there is a plethora of open source languages). Work with Databases, hmmm, let me see, some real enterprise class db’s here on Linux. No need to expand. Need to do desktop publishing / word processing / number crunching on a spreadsheet / presentation. Hell, OpenOffice has more features than what is required by 90% of the total Office Suite market worldwide. How many people really utilise all the power in MS Office? Very few indeed. I can elaborate all night in vertical software stacks here naming examples of how Linux and open source can fulfill the roles in those stacks.

    There’s a difference between finding compelling reasons and marketing. Microsoft may have supplied Linux and OSS it’s best tool yet in leveraging change and providing “compelling” reasons to switch over to an alternative – Vista. It is now a question of how long it is going to take the various independent OSS and Linux vendors to catch on the opportunity and leverage this in their sales pitch. Have you seen Red Hat or Novell really aggressively market their distro’s – no. ‘Nuff said.

    Yes, you granny or my aunt twice removed will use Windows and will probably never switch over to Linux in their lifetime, but only because they do not know of the alternatives. Let’s take a little social test, and take a dissection of the population across the median average in all classes, careers and incomes. Ask them if they have ever heard of or used Linux, I can guarantee you that at least 80% of those questioned will give you a blank stare, wondering if you just swore at them. Linux and OSS to a lesser degree needs to learn to market properly, jumping on the high horse of whether their software is better than what is available is not going to help people use it. What does it help having brilliant software if nobody knows it exists.

  18. Rufus
    October 9th, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    @Dewald: Thank you for your answer. Like I said, there are some very good applications available for Linux. Open Office is a good example. However, it is available for Windows, too! And so are Gimp, Firefox, Thunderbird, Stellarium, Midnight Commander, Adium, Freemind, Audacity, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Python, Perl, PHP, Apache and many more.

    Let’s look the other way around: Where’s Photoshop, Cubase, Aperture, Autocad, Garage Band, Omni Outliner, Quicken, OmniWeb, Morph, Comic Life, Lightroom, Paintshop, Corel, or Parallels for Linux?

    I’m not talking about ports, here, but about applications that are as useful and valueable as these — not in your eyes, but in the eyes of the general population.

    Indeed, the best reason to switch today is Microsoft Vista, just like you said. Isn’t it a shame that the only compelling reason you can name is the bad product of a competitor?

    I mean, what argument is that? “Use our product because it’s not as bad as our competitor’s!” Brilliant slogan.

    So where do people switch to? Check the recent operating system stats: Customers are turning to MacOS, not Linux. And the reasons are iTunes, iPhone, and lots of other useful and industry-leading applications.

    Meanwhile, Linux’ popularity is unchanged. I agree that maybe 80% of the population don’t know about Linux. Advertising may change that but it won’t change the behaviour of customers. People will continue to not use it.

    Because it offers not enought compelling reasons to do so.

  19. Damjan
    October 9th, 2008 @ 2:42 pm


    Many Windows applications work on Wine, while Linux binaries don’t work on Windows.

    Cost is a compelling enough reason to switch to Linux. Seen the price of macs lately?

    Yes Linux isn’t perfect and it has some distance to go, especially for desktop users. Doesn’t mean it’s the worst OS of them all.

  20. ChrisB
    October 9th, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    People will continue to not use it … because it offers not enough compelling reasons to do so

    Wel-l-l-l-l… yes, and there are not enough compelling reasons to do so, *because* Linux has not been marketed well enough for there to be (a) a big enough market share, and (b) enough developers marketing killer apps for it (chicken/egg situation if ever there was one).

    A situation Bill Gates solved fifteen or twenty years ago by being a marketing GENIUS. Whatever else you say about the man, you have to admit it – he knows how to sell his stuff.

  21. ChrisB
    October 9th, 2008 @ 3:33 pm


    Compelling arguments. Want to tell that to the 97% (or whatever) of the market that isn’t interested, and is paying the inflated Mac (& for that metter Windows) prices?

    Can’t argue with the wind, feller! Nobody said Linux was “the worst”, market share is never about what’s good or bad – it’s all about MARKETING!! :-)

  22. Rufus
    October 10th, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    @Damjan: I never said Linux is the worst OS of all. It has its advantages and surely it rocks in the server room.

    @ ChrisB: Absolutely! Linux needs more developers who create and market killer applications for Linux.

    To make this happen, you’d need to give them control on the distribution of their products. Windows makes this rather easy with MSI or a third-party installer. MacOS is also simple as pie with application directories. Linux, unfortunately, just sucks in this regard.

    This is Linux’ biggest disadvantage and the major reason for not gaining ground on the desktop.

  23. Potion
    October 10th, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    Lest we forget, Microsoft didn’t get to be where it is because of marketing; well, initially anyway – it was almost certainly due to IBM’s lack of attention to detail while negotiating with Gates & son.

    Linux really could do with a stroke of luck of Bill-Gates-ian proportions. And that may well be upon us. Firstly, “green” pundits have suggested for some time now that OSS fits well into a future sustainable economic model for the planet. It’s right up there with renewable energy, water conservation and permaculture. Secondly, the recent world economic crisis has forced many businesses and corporations to assess their IT spend, and not surprisingly have identified OSS (and therefore Linux) as an excellent value poposition.

  24. j0nn0
    October 11th, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    Lies and statistics… from what I can gather this whole FUDstorm (neologism) is based on one spokesperson from one new entrant to the netbook scene, viz:

    In the linked article (re the MSI Wind) the following exchange stands out:


    Q: Interestingly enough, we struggled with the Linux version of the Wind U90. Are there plans to tailor a Linux OS for the Wind?
    A: We plan to bring the Linux version to the U.S by the end of the year. But we are working on some of the issues with the SUSE Linux and even continue to explore other flavors of Linux. We have discussed Ubuntu with a Mac OS type of look and feel. We are talking to different suppliers to figure out the best user experience.


    Hello! Reading between the lines they probably had a very basic Desktop Environment – probably something lightweight like XFCE, which takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you come from a windos background. The Eee had a special modified DE that was tailored to its specific hardware. What was the return rate on them?

    Pundits say people complain that it’s too hard to learn a new interface, but those same people will gladly go out and spend thousands on a “familiar” office suite, because “everyone uses MS-Office”. (These are the same people who uses 10 spaces instead of tabs, so go figure.)

    In my company everyone uses OOo, because I won’t allow pirated copies of Office (or anything else) to be installed, and I refuse to spend so much on the MS offering. It takes new people a few hours to get up to speed, and then the only support I have to give is for the more complex tasks.

    So I find it strange that people who are budget-conscious are not prepared to invest a little time in learning how to use their machine. It’s a bit like buying an entry-level car and then complaining that it doesn’t have electric windows or a CD shuttle. (Hey, what’s with this gear-lever? My other car is automatic!) Except that with Linux you can add the “bells and whistles” yourself – at no extra cost – when you want them.

    And what’s wrong with installing from repositories? I certainly prefer it to an installer that could overwrite essential system files without my knowledge. And I prefer the open source community that’s always there to help, to the WinDOS tech who says, “Umm, I think we’re going to have to format your drive and reinstall.” Just because some rogue program overwrote some DLLs and there is no way of finding out which.

    I use Linux every day as a Desktop Environment, because it is reliable and productive. As an amateur musician, I have been working with some of the audio applications, and they seem at least as capable as some of the mid-range commercial offerings – and there are lots of them to choose from, so I can try them all, sync them together and MIDI link them to my keyboard. (CD out soon).

    imho, the biggest mistake was perhaps not including a “Quick Start” idiot’s guide in the box, to introduce the users to their new machine – and its interface. (Maybe they did and people have just forgotten how to read).

    Seems like a fudstorm created by an anti-Linux journo looking for a story.

  25. Linarian
    October 12th, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    The problem with linux marketing is the idea of the market itself as some sort of benchmark of where to be. Linux, and FOSS in general, transcend the market, there is no need for it in order for linux to be continually developed. The problem is that within the last ten this operating system has become increasingly controlled by corporations that desire money from it and so they keep pushing this “year of the linux desktop” (which frankly I’m getting a little tired of every year being THE year of linux). The users that aren’t interested in it needn’t use it, people should be told about it but not sold it, and definitely not tricked into it!

    This is absurd, and it’s beginning to wear heavily on me, I’m strongly considering jumping to BSD or another kernel and simply divorcing myself of this new corporate-os, that can’t seem to do anything other than worry about how well it’s doing in the market.

  26. capricornus
    October 12th, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    As a former science teacher, I blame “education” and it’s staff (thus: the teachers) for their ignorance+laziness. All over the world. But are they to blame? No, M$ knows very well what it’s marketing machine can do: buy teachers, convert them, convince them that there is only M$. And teach the kids: M$ stuff… The kids grow older but not wiser, they were not taught to solve problems in the essential way, but in the M$ way. If everyone or 90% drives on the left side, driving on the right side is very difficult, especially at a roundabout. Image Linux as a roundabout.
    I, at home, have a difficult time to convince my wife and kids to use Linux. They always go back to M$, without good arguments, but yelling at me that M$ is easier. I don’t think so at all, maintaining a M$-pc is much more work.
    Linux is not for dummies, but for smarties. For the elected, the few that can use their brains at a higher level. M$ is for dummies, and they even pay for it. 😉

  27. Mehtuus
    October 13th, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    …what’s happening is that the wrong kind of users are being attracted to these machines based solely on price, …these folks aren’t willing to put in the effort to learn how to use … and find free alternatives to the software that they are used to paying for.
    – Adrian Kingsley-Hughes (

  28. Zorba
    October 14th, 2008 @ 7:27 am

    They need to call these things appliances instead of pc’s.

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