23 February 2009

Dell *Does* Deliver (with Netbooks)

There's been a lot of sound and fury flying around about the split between GNU/Linux and Windows XP sales on netbooks, and what that means for the larger desktop sector. Some have used low figures for the former to suggest that GNU/Linux *still* stands no chance with the general public. But maybe what we need are more datapoints - ones like this, perhaps:

While MSI told us a few months back that Wind netbooks running SuSE Linux saw 4x higher return rates than that of XP machines, Dell has had quite the opposite experience with its Inspiron Mini 9 offering with Ubuntu. “A third of our Mini 9 mix is Linux, which is well above the standard attach rate for other systems that offer Linux. We have done a very good job explaining to folks what Linux is,” says Dell’s Jay Pinkert.

Dell attributes part of the Linux growth to competitive pricing on the Ubuntu SKUs. “When you look at the sweet spot for this category it is price sensitivity, and Linux enabled us to offer a lower price entry point,” added Dell senior product manager John New.

The key point here is that the manufacturer must make it clear what the customer is getting for the super-low price. Kudos to Dell that they seem to have managed that.

Oh, and could we please have less whining by other netbook manufacturers about their GNU/Linux sales, since it might well be your *own* fault, not that of free software...


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I'm probably a bit of a pessimist when it comes to desktop GNU/Linux, but I don't think you can draw any conclusions from the Dell article beyond what the Dell rep said: 1/3 of their sales of the Mini are the Ubuntu offering. We still don't know *anything* about what happens after the sale.

The Mini 9 is at least $40 cheaper with Ubuntu than with Windows XP. That's a pretty good incentive for buyers to choose the Ubuntu model. It's possible that some of them bought the Ubuntu model because of the lower price, and then proceeded to install their own copy of Windows XP on it, or installed a pirated copy, or turned it into a Hackintosh. (The Dell Mini 9 works almost out-of-the-box with a retail Mac OS X install DVD, so it's quite popular with that crowd.)

I'm not saying that Ubuntu isn't a better experience on the Mini than GNU/Linux on other manufacturers' netbooks. Dell's been at it for awhile and they deserve kudos for that, at least. But I am saying that a Dell spokesman's statement that 1/3 of Dell's Mini sales go out the door with Ubuntu doesn't give us the whole picture. From that statement alone, we don't know whether actual usage or customer satisfaction with Ubuntu on the Mini is significantly different than on any other netbook.

Also, the author compares the Dell statement to the earlier article about MSI, in which MSI said that returns on the GNU/Linux netbooks are 4x higher than Windows netbooks. But unless I missed something in that article, MSI didn't say anything about their sales mix (maybe it's just as good as Dell's), nor did Dell say anything about their return rate (maybe it's just as high as MSI's). We can't compare apples and oranges.

Just to prove I'm trying to be impartial here, I should also point out that it's possible that the reason MSI's returns on GNU/Linux models are 4x higher than Windows is because everyone who returned their GNU/Linux netbook was trying, unsuccessfully, to install Mac OS X on it. It may have nothing to do with GNU/Linux at all. The point is, we just don't have enough information.

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I agree that it would be good to have the full picture, and that there's a lot we don't know. But I'm a big fan of Occam's Razor, and it seems to me that Dell was addressing the issue of returns implicitly, and that we can reasonably assume Dell is saying that things aren't as bad as other manufacturers have painted them.

Unknown said...

I'm not pessimistic about desktop/laptop Linux. It is really all about familiarity. I've helped many of my friends and associates to make the switch and for some of them it sticks, and others try it for a longer or shorter time and then return to Windows. In years past this was often because of lack of hardware support for some specific item (camera, scanner, etc) or that a specific program was necessary for daily tasks. These issues have slowly diminished. The biggest problem today comes down to unfamiliarity: basically a resistance to the effort and time needed to learn something that's a little different from what they are used to.

While I don't think its "just a matter of time" before Linux becomes ubiquitous, I certainly DO believe that the appropriate strategies for Linux promotion (TV advertising, improving support from OEMs, a web presence on OEM websites alongside the omnipresent "We recommend Microsoft Windows", etc,) will slowly diminish the steepness of that unfamiliarity curve, making it less and less of a challenge for the Windows-comfortable to make the switch.

Of course, the Linux ecosystem continues to play a role in this too, decreasing the need to use the command-line (which is a HUGE stumbling block for potential switchers, and the primary reason I do not recommend Ubuntu for any of my Linux-curious friends), and continuing to match or exceed the capabilities of Windows-only programs.

I guess there is still some short-term effect on the big picture from Microsoft's enormous wealth. They certainly seem to have bought off Asus and to be able to scare others into reducing their Linux-friendliness with promises or outright bribes. But there is a race to be bottom going on in the Laptop/Netbook sector, and as long as the only leverage they have against "free" is "unfamiliarity" then this advantage will slowly play itself out.

There are some very big players on the side of Linux, (like Intel) who see the writing on the wall and know that the age of Windows domination is drawing to a close. The possibility that Dell would offer ANY computer with Linux preloaded was just a dream until quite recently, and now we're debating the impact of 30% market share for Linux for their Mini9. This does indicate a market direction, and no OEM is blind to that.

Long story short: the netbook sector IS an important opening for Linux, and the impact this sector will have has yet to play itself out. Dell will have a role to play in this, as will the other players and stakeholders. Depending on how they play this role, Linux adoptions will either increase rapidly (as a consequence of the diminishing unfamiliarity factor) or more slowly, if yesterday's dynamics of Microsoft FUD, OEM dithering, and customer unfamiliarity continue to dominate.

Glyn Moody said...

Great points - thanks for sharing them.