Shawn Powers wrote an interesting article on LJ, Where Do YOU Send NetBook Users For Help?, which speaks about the myriad different distributions used on NetBooks (like the eeePC and its’ brethren), many of which are significantly different from the usual mainstream distros.
From a vendor’s point of view, it probably seems a good idea. However, there are two major problems that I see in it. Firstly, while there aren’t a gigantic number of people that can give aid with Linux, there are quite a few - especially in one of the hottest areas (that I’ve seen) for the eeePC, colleges and universities. Unless the vendor is prepared to offer high-quality OS and application tech support, they should do all they can to make use of whatever Linux support resources already exist. Ubuntu is becoming increasingly common, so the best move (in my mind) would be to re-brand Ubuntu, but keep the functionality the same, therefore making use of (arguably) a relatively large experience base, by Linux standards. If you’re a hardware company, and don’t focus on providing (software) technical support, the smartest thing to do is to try and maximize the amount of third-party software support that’s available.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we’ve finally started to reach a time when Linux is becoming standardized. Most popular distros follow (more-or-less) the LSB specification, and Gnome and KDE have become the accepted standards for pretty much all non-geek graphical environments. It’s taken years to reach this point, and the introduction of mass-market netbooks, many with their own customized distros, is not helping, nor is it smart on the manufacturers’ part.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the manufacturers themselves just see Linux as an OS that doesn’t cost them anything, without seeing the big picture. If they truly understood Free software, they’d be working to improve on existing technology, while retaining the existing code as a base, rather than struggling to differentiate their offering. If I was to start selling Linux-based netbooks, I think the solution is quite simple, just by following the trends in the Linux world: sell a “business” version that runs RedHat or CentOS, maybe SuSE, and a “consumer” version that has Ubuntu (which, as far as I’ve seen, is the most popular with the non-linux crowd). Rather than trying to build my own distro and differentiate it from everything else, I’d build on what little Linux experience the general public has, by using the most common distros. If the marketing guys want differentiation so badly, that’s the wonder of Free software - just add vendor-specific logos and a custom theme.
On a personal note, I’ve had an eeePC 701G Surf since December 2007. The *first* thing I did when I got it was create a 4GB SDHC card with a full install of my favorite distro, and set it up to boot from the SDHC. I haven’t booted Xandros more than twice. Even the “expert” mode, which is somewhat like a normal desktop environment, is severely lacking in common tools, administrative tools, and security (the user separation is abysmal). I would’ve been much more happy to see it ship with a good install of Ubuntu, even locked down with a “simple” desktop for the default user. Things like sed, awk, grep, and an SSH server should be instaled on every Linux system. Also, just a theory - set each system to have a unique, randomly generated root password, and print it on a label on the bottom of the machine.