Why do netbook vendors make their own distribution?

Netbooks are very small, lightweight, cheap laptops. For $350-600 you get a mini-laptop, perfect for surfing the web or writing a quick document. Many of them, as I've pointed out in previous posts, have open source software desktops.

The thing that's disappointing to me is that they all have their own Linux distribution. As a matter of fact, the Eee PC I talk about so much, comes with a custom version of Xandros that is based on Xandros and KDE. (I apologize if in previous releases I made it sound like it came with GNOME. It comes with KDE and a simplified desktop based on KDE. I think the simplified interface is probably quite good for a large percentage of users. And because it has a free and open source solution on it, you can put any other open source distribution and desktop you want on it. Which I think is a big strength. I put a disto with GNOME on it, however I go back to the default option often in hopes that they've fixed everything.) Xandros isn't alone in making a custom distribution. Dell worked with Canonical for a distribution for their netbook. Rumors have it that HP is making their own distribution for their netbook.

So why is this? Why do the netbook vendors make their own distribution? On one hand, I'm glad free software gives them the ability to make their own distribution. On the other hand, I worry that we aren't meeting their needs. (My Eee PC is not perfect whether it's running the standard distribution it comes with or one that I put on it.) I hope over time, as we get more netbooks into the hands of open source software developers, those developers will make KDE, GNOME and Linux in general work better on systems with small hard drives, screens and keyboards. Netbooks, like other mobile devices, have different needs than a full laptop. I hope we can live up to the challange quickly so that users have great free and open solutions.

20 Replies to “Why do netbook vendors make their own distribution?”

  1. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 includes a very slightly customized version of Ubuntu – I’ve not seen it myself, but I read somewhere that all of the extra utilities they’ve included are “not useless”, and mirror somewhat the extra utilities that Dell releases for Windows.
    I’ve no evidence for it, but it seems like Canonical might be involved. Either way, I’d love to see more “big Linux vendors” involved with OEMs.
    The other nice thing about the Dell is that they supposedly work entirely with current vanilla distros (no special blob packages needed), which is the main thing causing me to hesitate over buying the physically “better” HP competition (which, oddly enough, you can’t buy with Linux with the most powerful options [last time I checked]).

  2. You can’t compare what Dell does with Ubuntu to Asus and Xandros, Peters.
    Xandros is suffering from Not Invented Here and wrote a lot of code for their customized interface. The Dell Mini 9 just adds a new application launcher on top of a standard Gnome desktop and modified the default settings of metacity to make all the app run maximized. I actually felt no need to replace the default Ubuntu distro on my Dell mini, all the software I could need is a apt-get away and it can give me full access to the Gnome desktop if I wanted it.
    I felt truly amazed at the possibility of having a laptop with all the hardware working out of the box with a good linux distro and not something as crappy as Xandros and immediately bought the Mini 9 when it got available in France. The default configuration makes a lot of sense : the “windows” key on the keyboard turns the app you are using into full screen mode, for example.
    Oh, and I am typing all this on my Mini. The keyboard is smaller than on a regular laptop but you can type quite fast after you get used to it.

  3. I think it’s a problem of mindsets:
    Companies over years are used to rolling out their own version. When you buy a graphics card your vendor delivers a custom driver for it, usually based on the chip manufacturer’s reference driver.
    The problem is not so much that some distribution might not be good enough, the problem is the loss of control: Many companies are just not comfortable with relying too much on something they have no control over.
    Take the EEEPC: Debian has a custom installer that brings puts a very well working distro on your EEEPC. Asus could have based their distro on top of that but they were probably afraid that something out of their control would change and break things. This lead them to buying some other solution, hack something together and release it.
    Of course the preinstalled Xandros is bad, their repositories have hardly anything to install and even very popular software can’t easily be updated (their GTK version is too old for firefox3 for example), but they felt that having their own repo, full under control was the right way to go. It was easy, cheap and freed them from having to deal with some “community”.
    This is where distributions have to fill a hole: You have to convince vendors that they can rely on you, that you won’t just break their stuff willy-nilly. You have to show them that, instead of rolling your own badly-supported version, it’s better for everybody if they build on top of something widely adopted and tested. Asus should have for example taken debian as base and added their own repository with their custom builds. That would have made the EEEPC a lot better, would have offered a lot more to the users and would in fact have made Asus’ job easier but making that step, understanding that will take time and a lot of work by the distributors.

  4. An interesting thing to note is not only that a lot of OEMs release their own distros, but a lot of distros do, too. How many distros can you name? Ubuntu, Suse, Fedora, Mandriva and Debian are already 5 different ones. And those are only the big ones – and don’t include “enterprise” distros either. For software, it’s always negatively associated that there’s “duplicate work” being done. Apparently, for distros, it’s fine. I still wonder why.
    See also http://blogs.gnome.org/otte/2007/05/22/distros/ for me complaining about that.

  5. Because nor the GNOME Desktop, nor the KDE one, work on a 7 inch display. Actually there isn’t any one that does. You could even shrink OS X to fit in that display but the experience would suck. There’s simply no good interface out there for netbooks.
    So imho the own distro thingy which consist basically on nice app launchers is not the solution. The solution is creating untuitive interfaces for that form factor, a bit like what the iPhone brought to mobiles. So as for the time being, I see the netbook and its software combo (any) as pure crap.

  6. Yes, it’s a problem.
    If anyone is interested in fixing it, the best way to do so would be to talk to the companies, look at their changes, and create GNOME goals to fix as many of the issues upstream as possible.

  7. @oliver
    I’ve not used the standard version of Xandros, so I can’t comment on how much it differs from that specifically, but here’s what I noticed:
    * There’s the user interface, of course. Not too bad for the type of device, but any customisations you make to the xml config file tend to be overwritten by automatic updates quite regularly (there was a way around this with the early models, which seems to have been removed in the 901)
    * The system is single user (name = user) – there is no simple way to add a user or log in with another user name.
    * /etc/sudoers is set up to permit user to run any command without a password. Simpy removing NOPASSWD: and setting passwd_timeout prevents the desktop being displayed
    * unionfs (701, 900) or aufs (901 +) is used – the system is installed onto a read-only partion, with config changes / additional software saved to a rw partion which overlays this. Allows easy system restore, but creates difficulties with, e.g. modification of grub
    * kernel lacks iptables support. After re-compiling to enable this, I had to remove unionfs in order to boot successfully
    * Wireless works with no problems
    I struggled trying to adapt it to my preferences for a while, but then decided to install Debian, which I’m much happier with.

  8. Why should there be a single distribution that magically adapts to every device? And why should we discourage vendors from utilizing the greatest strength of free software, namely that it can be customized in the first place?
    Of course we don’t meet their demands, we create generic distributions that run mediocrely on a myriad of devices (of which a myriad – 2 are generic PCs), tailored towards enthusiasts and hackers. This can’t be in the best interest of hardware manufacturers interested in building the most impressive and tightly integrated user experience for their brand new device.
    I hope we will not discourage OEMs from doing this, but instead focus more on building the foundations and building blocks from which these customized products can be built (and then offer our services to build it :)).
    This is the one thing, Microsoft cannot even hope to compete with. And the example of maemo should show how much our community can benefit from it.

  9. Actually the eeePC does not have its own distribution. It is Xandros that has been customized for the eeePC which is not the same thing as its own distribution. Also Xandros that comes with the eeePC is not KDE, but IceWM. You can convert it to KDE quite simply by adding two files (kicker and ksmserver) from the Xandros repositories which enables you to boot into Advanced Mode (KDE) or Easy Mode (IceWM).
    Adding the files is not simple as Synaptic is not enabled in the menus so you must go to a terminal and type Synaptic. Once there you can install anything that is available in Xandros 4.
    My eeePC 900 now boots Ubuntu 8.10. A good resource is eeeuser.com which steps you through customizing your eeePC.

  10. Addendum to my own posting:
    I have installed the following distros on the eeePC: Ubuntu 7.10, 8.04, and 8.10, gOS, eeeDora, Mandriva 2008, Elive, Geubuntu (now OpenGeu), Debian (Sidux), and PCLOS Minime. Not all are satisfactory.
    I have found the ones that gives the best performance are Ubuntu and gOS (based on Ubuntu) and Mandriva in that all of the features worked. Mandriva has the edge in that multimedia worked out of the box and things generally took less configuration, but Ubuntu had the best support overall. Also Ubuntu installed faster and boots more quickly. Nothing boots as quickly as the Xandros that comes with it.
    My eeePC triple boots, Xandros, Windows XP and Ubuntu 8.10. I have other distros on SD cards and can switch to any distro I want by inserting a card. This is a great little machine. Even Compiz Fusion works on it!

  11. Since I work at Mandriva and Netbooks are a hot topic these days there, I think there are several reasons for distributions to choose non “standard” desktop solutions for this kind of hardware :
    -hardware vendors target is not average computer user but people who need a small PC to browse web, write two documents and so on. So, they think the classic “desktop” metaphor is too complex and want to “fill” the screen by default with launcher for the various applications (it might be a mobile phone syndrom ;). I’m not sure it is a good idea but they are the one who ask for it
    -GNOME desktop performance are not good enough for those low end hardware laptops, compared to other lightweight solutions (LXDE for instance). You can cold start LXDE in 2s (on Atom platform), while GNOME will take up to 5s (I hope Bedhad and other people will be able to improve that). It is often a tradeoff because you loose some features you will need later 🙁

  12. If it weren’t for the OLPC (or $100 laptop) project, OEM’s would never have known there was a market for a simple, inexpensive, light-weight computing device. After the MS & Intel’s initial attempt at sabotaging the project, look at how many of them are tripping over each other trying to market these devices.
    Like LinuxCanuck, I like the fact I can choose what distro goes on it and which apps I’m going to use. I also wish OEM’s would stop trying to shoe-horn XP/Vista where it doesn’t belong. It’s not like MS is not on every laptop being sold.

  13. As mentioned above, the typical desktop distributions are not suitable for the specs of netbooks. For example, the screen is smaller, so the desktop needs to be rearranged.
    Another company that has not been mentioned is Linpus,
    Companies such as Linpus came in to fill the void for commodity OS for netbooks.
    GNOME Mobile (http://www.gnome.org/mobile/) is quite new and promising. I hope it becomes the defacto standard.
    If it can provide cutting-edge functionality following the pace of GNOME, the community provides packages so that they can install on their netbook of choice, then manufacturers will have not other option than to switch.
    We already see users switching by themselves to Ubuntu EEE,

  14. They make their own distribution because they need to maintain the specific driver needed for the odd chipsets they used when making the laptop. This is a very acceptable situation, provided they offer their distro code per the version of the GPL they selected.

  15. It’s simple: Because GNOME developers are so conservative they cannot agree among themselves on the most basic of innovations for the desktop. Who did anything to get GNOME beyond hierarchic menus and a space-wasting two-panel layout? The distributions (SUSE, Mint). And now, again, innovation is happening in distributions, not in GNOME.
    Design by committee simply doesn’t work. Especially when persons on the committee personally feel SO comfortable with the way the have done things so far…
    Distributions, and especially commercial ones, have a much, much higher incentive to do things _better_.
    How to get innovation happening inside GNOME again? I don’t know; and I’m really not sure whether it would be desirable; look at how Aaron Seigo got burned for the innovations in KDE4.
    My POV: Be happy to see innovations happening in distributions and just incorporate the most successful ones into mainline GNOME (provided that the source is available; unfortunately HP, who have created the nicest GUI-addon yet, didn’t open-source it).

  16. I think what manufacturers are trying to achieve is to take total advantage of the hardware at hand as they further and further develop their own distros (based on other distros). The only problem is that at this point, they aren’t really producing the distros that truly take a advantage of the hardware, that’s why many people find that it doesn’t matter, and often better if you install some other distro.

  17. The issue here is why the EeePC needed it’s own custom Linux distribution. I think the answer is quite obvious – it’s custom tailored.
    Sure, it cost them some funds to get this custom version of Linux developed, but look at all the pluses: They could control what *software experiences* users would have. That’s right, I said ‘software experiences’. By that, I mean they could ensure a smooth, integrated and predictable experience across the entire universe of software in their own custom repositories. That, and the fact that the hardware platform is also known and chosen by them, they can safely test that everything works on the target, as promised.
    In a sense, Asus came closer to being Apple than any previous Linux hardware vendor – insofar as they had complete hardware and software control over the EeePC project.
    Does that answer your question?

  18. Just a quick info, Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex actually works just fine on a Lenovo S10 Idepad without any modification but to reconfigure to only 1 panel to reserve screen space.

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