Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Linux continues to languish

There's an interesting comparison on CNN Money between the Apple MacBook Air, the Everex Cloudbook, and the Sony VAIO Tz 298N. Cost wise the Sony was at the top at nearly 4 grand, while the Everex nailed the low end at $400. A nice order-of-magnitude cost spread there. I'll let the Gentle Reader find out on their on what the writer's favorite machine was, but it wasn't the Cloudbook:
The Cloudbook, which uses a Linux-based operating system called Ubuntu, was the runt of the litter.

Booting the machine up was dog slow, and the keyboard felt mushy and cheap. It could stall for minutes at a time, and all programs on it required a certain level of patience. The Cloudbook is designed to offer basics such as e-mail and the web, and the price is nice. The performance isn't.
With the exception of the keyboard, that pretty much sums up my experiences with Nokia's 770 web tablet (which I was dumb enough to buy). I can excuse the 770 (somewhat): based on Debian (as is Ubuntu), it was (under) powered by a 330 MHz ARM-based processor and 64MB of on-device memory. The Cloudbook, by contrast, ships with 512MB of memory (eight times the 770) and a Via C-7M clocked at 1.2GHz (roughly four times the 770, based on raw clock speed). Oh, and the Cloudbook comes with a 30GB hard drive, which just blows away the minuscule 128MB of flash built into the 770.

Yes, I know, the form factors are radically different, and they're separated by two years between their releases. But the same problem, pitiful performance, and they fact they both run a derivative of Debian, ties the two machines together.

And for the record, the OS on the Cloudbook is gOS V2, which is based on Ubuntu 7.10 and Enlightenment 17.

But that still doesn't hide the fact that when you give a Linux-based machine, specifically a high-profile portable (or ultra-portable) machine to someone outside the Linux faithful, that they invariably zero in on the lack of performance. I know that Linux can be very performant, because I run it all the time on Gateway notebooks and desktop machines, the same hardware that runs Windows. But in all those cases where I'm reasonably satisfied I picked and matched up the hardware and the distribution. The closest I have to the Cloudbook is rhea, which also has 512MB of memory and a 30GB hard drive, but the processor is an old (four-year-old, 32-bit only) AMD Athlon XP 2500+ 1.8 GHz processor. And the whole thing runs Mandriva 2008.1, and runs it quite well.

But that's just me, and I'm not selling DIY systems with Linux installed (although, at times I wish I were just to make sure it's done right). Instead, we have major manufacturers going for the lowest dollar possible machines and sticking Linux on them. And the whole combination, cheap lowball hardware plus free Linux, gives a very poor Linux experience, providing further ammunition to Linux's detractors and competitors. And that's something that the Linux community had better start paying close attention to. Business users read articles from business publications, and when they cover technology, like this one did, and they ding a Linux-powered machine, like this one did, then that makes the selling of Linux powered machines that much harder. And that reputation, deserved or not, continues to impede the widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop (and I'm including portables in this) and further infuriates the vocal but clueless Linux desktop evangelists, driving them to further heights of vocal cluelessness.

And you wonder why Redhat really wants no part of this whole mess.

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