OpenSource World Dell has delivered a dose of reality for both Microsoft and the Linux community on the subject of netbooks.
Speaking at OpenSource World, a Dell executive deflated Microsoft's enthusiasm for making a case out of the number of Linux netbooks returned by unhappy customers.
Todd Finch, Dell senior product marketing manager, said the number of Linux returns are approximately the same as those for Windows netbooks. He categorized the matter of returns as a "non-issue".
"They are making something of nothing," he said of Microsoft's claims. Finch appeared to be referring to Dell's own netbook sales.
Dell sells three machines running the Ubuntu Linux distro: the Atom-based Mini 10v, which can be classed as a netbook, plus the Inspiron 15n and XPS M1330n that run Core 2 Duo chips.
The comments came after Microsoft chief operating officer Kevin Turner recently told his company's annual financial analysts' meeting that retailers selling Linux-powered netbooks had told him they are experiencing return rates "like four or five times higher than what we're seeing on other PCs that have Windows."
Where consumers have returned machines, Finch said, it wasn't because of technical problems but because they'd bought a low-priced machine expecting Windows and opened it to find a different interface. Consumers had responded to the low price, he said - the Mini 10v retails for $299 online.
"Now we are trying to be a little more explicit in our advertising," Finch said.
"We are not seeing any technical reasons for why they are returning Linux machines so...we don't see a significant difference between the return rate for Windows versus the rate for Linux. We've been quite pleased with the stability and technical soundness of the Linux machines."
But that doesn't mean netbooks are a shoo-in for Linux. Issues persist, particularly in battery life and power consumption, as well as with the number of applications available from major ISVs that run on Linux.
Power management will become more of an issue for Linux with Microsoft's Windows 7, Finch said, while he encouraged OpenSource World attendees to focus on writing cloud-based applications capable of running on any machine.
A quick straw poll of conference delegates revealed they believe application available to be more of an issue than power consumption and battery life. They believed Linux netbooks should ship with Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, and Pidgin. After that, there was a big fall off.
Another major hurdle to Linux on netbooks is that while Linux might be tops among geeks and industry types demand is still missing among mainstream consumers.
If consumer demand was strong, then that would encourage volume outlets like Best Buy or Walmart stores to sell Linux netbooks.
Simply parachuting into Walmart, as some conference attendees suggested, won't trigger demand. Sun Microsystems in 2004 tried and failed to drive uptake of its Java Desktop System on PCs that were stocked and then pulled by Walmart for lack of demand.
"We have to have demand from people walking into the stores - a lot of the people buying open source are buying online. We can make the product but can't dictate where it's sold," Finch said.
"When the people walk into a Best Buy or Walmart they have to ask for open source."
Finch conceded Dell could have done a better job of flagging up Linux-powered PCs on its own site, adding it's a "battle" he's fighting inside Dell with those running its site.
Microsoft is famous for having locked down the retail channel by providing retailers with cash and marketing resources to enable everything from endorsements of Windows on PCs to stocking and positioning of product in the stores and on shelves.
Novell openSuSE community manager Joe Brockmeier, appearing with Finch, said raising awareness to stimulate consumer demand via marketing is Linux's biggest hurdle.
"If you take my marketing budget, add it to Ubuntu and Red Hat's marketing budget it's not even a rounding error for Microsoft. For us to generate the market awareness to say: 'I want Linux on a netbook' is going to be incredibly hard because we don't have the tools to do that," Brockmeier said.
Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon, also appearing, noted the buyers at large stores like Walmart responded to building "feeling" and mind share. That can be cultivated through blogs, news articles, and Twitter. Bacon said enthusiasts had to therefore evangelize and build mindshare.
Finch signed off by calling for feedback on what Dell could be doing with Linux through its Ideastorm site. ®