OS implementation is another netbook differentiator

AceraspireoneNo doubt that folks looking for an out-of-the-box computing experience will find the Acer Aspire One very attractive, but I keep coming back to the custom Linpus Lite implementation as a potential stumbling block. Yes, I realize there are plenty of good, on-line resources dedicated towards making this netbook are more usable machine. And the simple front end does cover up a very efficient Linux operating system. I’m trying to look at the device from the eyes of the target audience though… and that’s generally someone looking for an inexpensive laptop to use on the go. Mainstream users in that audience are going to be challenged; here’s one example of what I mean.

Once you get past the many useful open-source applications bundled with the Acer Aspire One, you’ll likely want to do what I consider a very normal activity for most consumers: add applications. I’m going to overlook the fact that to add apps, you must open a Terminal and configure the AAO for advanced options. This is a must because Acer has included no provisions to add or remove programs on the simple desktop menu. Most folks will get frustrated by not knowing how to do this, but again, I’m going to overlook it because that’s not the biggest challenge in what should be a very simple function. And actually, installing an application from the web is pretty simple, so we’ll go down that path.

I wanted to add Skype to my Acer. Yup, you can argue that mainstream consumers won’t want Skype or know what it is and that’s fine. You could substitute any application that’s downloadable from the web and my example of the real issue still holds true, so bear with me.

So I went to the Skype download page and installed the Linux version for Fedora, as I knew Linpus was based on that build. I clicked through a few dialog boxes and got the app installed. Great! So now you’re saying: "OK, what was so hard about that?" Truth be told: nothing. The problem enters when you actually want to USE the application you just installed.

See, there’s no simple way for traditional computer users to add a shortcut to installed apps onto the desktop. You can move the existing shortcuts within their four groups, but adding or deleting them? Nope. So how then do these users get to the applications that they install?

For starters, they could use what’s otherwise a nifty search feature right on the desktop. Acer included this function so you can search from something on the Internet or on your Desktop, which is essentially a search on the AAO. I searched for Skype on the Desktop using the tool and found 49 items. Uh oh… which is the application? Of course, I know which is the right file based on the "executable" type and exists in /usr/bin, but I’m betting that many consumers won’t. They’re used to a menu of programs to choose from; not a search of files and then figuring out which is the right one.

I know it’s possible to add a shortcut to my Skype application on the desktop with this implementation. Or at least, I know of one way. That’s to open and edit the XML file used by Acer to create the custom desktop. Or you could open a Terminal session and kill the "xfdesktop2" process and start up "xfdesktop-xfce" to truly get into an "advanced desktop mode" and customize your menus. (And even that is hit or miss….) Or you could… well, you get my point. And Acer hasn’t included any documentation on how to add or remove programs; everyday folks will have to Google for solutions and hope they implement them correctly just to get at what I consider basic functionality.

If I sound a little disappointed in the custom Linpus Lite implementation, it’s because I am. Not for myself: I don’t mind learning more about Linux and having fun trying new things. But I’m not the main target market for netbooks. I think of people like my father, my son, folks I bump into at Circuit City and Best Buy… these are the target audiences. By and large they’re going to struggle in my opinion unless they decide to spend the extra $20 to purchase the Windows XP version.

Linux and power-user users won’t have these issues of course… I get that. Again, I’m trying to look at this from the standpoint of the mainstream audience. The issue I’ve outlined can apply equally to any other netbook if the manufacturer does a poor job with the Linux implementation. In fact, while we’ve harped on the limited differentiation of netbooks in the market, I’m comfortable with saying that this is a new and very important one in my opinion. It doesn’t matter to most people that they’re getting a fully functional netbook at a low price if the OS implementation is a barrier to that functionality. Netbook makers have to make the devices easy to use, but going too far in that direction is a mistake in my opinion.

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