Why are we pinning Linux desktop hopes on netbooks?

Consumers already have a user experience in mind when using a device focused on personal computing tasks. That experience is largely Microsoft Windows-based.

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I've been reading the recent Linux and netbook blogs/analysis with great interest as my wife's ThinkPad T40 is nearing death. I asked her if she wanted a Mac, a netbook, or another ThinkPad. Her response: "I don't care. I just want to read e-mail, do some Excel and Word, and clean up pictures with Picasa."  Based on how I interpreted these requirements, I suggested a Mac. She nixed that idea quickly, saying, "If you want a Mac, like I know you do, go get one. But I don't want to pay extra for one."

Bruised, I suggested she buy a netbook. She'd seen them at Costco and liked the low price. I told her we could get one with Linux, so it'd be even cheaper. Her response: "How much cheaper? Because I know how my Windows works and how to access my folders with Explorer." I made the mistake of saying that the Linux version was about $50 cheaper than the Windows version. Game over. She wants nothing to do with a Linux netbook. Not surprisingly, she wants nothing to do with Vista and its whole new UI, either.

[ Discover what's next for netbooks in InfoWorld's special report. | Does desktop Linux still have a chance? Neil McAllister offers his prediction. ]

The discussion with my wife is exactly why I disagree with Sam Dean's view that "product differentiation -- a better product strategy -- is the holy grail for Linux netbooks. They should be more compelling and exciting than Windows netbooks, no matter what it takes to make that happen."

Trying to make the Linux netbook more compelling and exciting than a Windows netbook goes against consumer demand. The average netbook consumer (i.e., my wife) doesn't want a more compelling laptop/netbook; she wants a cheap and Windows-based user experience. Nothing different, nothing more.

To get my wife and countless other consumers to use Linux, the primary task has to be something other than personal computing. My wife knows what user experience she expects during personal computing tasks -- her experience with Windows has cemented that expectation. However, she doesn't yet know what user experience to expect when, for instance, reading on an e-book device. The primary task supported by the device is reading a book, magazine, or Web content. Adding support for personal computing tasks such as checking her e-mail or creating simple spreadsheets to this device could introduce a different user experience than she is accustomed to on her laptop.

This is because the device's primary task is not personal computing. She has never complained that editing spreadsheets or saving files into folders on her BlackBerry is different than how she is accustomed to doing these taks on her laptop. (Note: She does both of these tasks on her BlackBerry often.) This is because the device (BlackBerry) is focused on a different task than her laptop.

For the average consumer, the only difference between a laptop and a netbook is the name. Consumers expect these devices to perform similarly. This is why Linux will face challenges in the netbook device market. However, if we're talking about a new device, focused on a new primary task, the sky's the limit for Linux with consumers.

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p.s.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."