One of the primary drivers for my interest in Linux over the last couple of years has been my netbooks. A couple of years ago, I picked up an Eee PC 704, and the Linux-based OS on it was horrible. Out of the box, it wasn’t well configured for the kinds of uses most people would have in mind for a netbook. For example, Flash was absent, video and audio codecs weren’t installed, and it was very difficult to modify or add additional software.

I decided to look into Linux alternatives. After being very disappointed with several platforms designed specifically for netbooks, I finally got Ubuntu 9.04 running well on it and called it a day. However, it was difficult to do and required a much higher level of expertise than the average netbook user was supposed to have. I walked away from the experience convinced that even the best Linux could deliver was far too little to make it a contender or threat to mainstream OS platforms.

I’ve argued that the killer features for the iPad (and other similar mobile consumer electronic devices) are instant-on and super-long battery life. I wondered, “How can I get long standby time, stellar battery life, and instant-on accessibility of an iPad on my Lenovo IdeaPad S10?” I decided that, to make it fair, I should find an OS that was lighter than Win Pro 7 that’s currently installed. So, I ordered a 9 cell battery and started cruising the Internet looking for free, lightweight, mobile device-oriented OS platforms designed to be competitive with iOS and Android.

I was interested in something that would run the Intel AppUp marketplace, as they have probably the strongest library of native apps designed to work on the Atom platform, including Angry Birds, Dropbox, Evernote, Twitter, and more. They’re way behind the curve but ahead of most of the other “Johnny Come Lately” markets.

Unfortunately, AppUp supports two OS platforms – Windows and Moblin. Moblin was the obvious choice based on my criteria, but both the official Moblin distro and the Ubuntu version left me unimpressed. I tried Ubuntu Moblin on my S10 after testing it on a VM, and I ended up wiping the entire volume. Then I looked at the pure Moblin distro, but I only got as far as downloading the .iso and preparing a VM before I decided that it wasn’t going to meet my criteria either.

So, I went back to searching. I tried several “Netbook Remix” versions. I even tried Mint and various suggestions from TechRepublic members, but nothing came close to satisfying me. Ubuntu and Windows were still the best choices for Atom-based mobile PCs, and they represented an old paradigm of personal computing. On my Eee PC 704, I settled for Ubuntu with the Riceeey Tweeks for Eee PC. It was less than ideal, but it worked and was legitimate.

I’m sure that some of the things I tried have matured and improved over the past two years, but I’m like most consumers. If my initial experience with a product is very unsatisfactory, the odds are that I’m not going to consider that product again in the future. Like many consumers who have given the various Linux distros a shot, I feel that the time I’ve wasted on those distributions more than offsets the fact that the software didn’t cost me anything.

The fact is, every major FOSS distribution aimed at consumer markets has fallen short in one way or another. Linux has failed repeatedly, across every distribution, to gain any significant market share in this segment, because it doesn’t meet the basic expectations of consumers. Even Android, after less than five years, has no doubt exceeded the market penetration of Linux by a substantial margin.

Granted, Linux has made tremendous strides, particularly in the last several years, but the best Linux offerings have always been behind the curve, rough and unfinished around the edges, and just not up to the quality of the professionally packaged commercial competition.

Quite a few of my issues were trivial. For example, Moblin Ubuntu didn’t activate my wireless nics, because they’re broadcom and not FOSS drivers. For me, it’s second nature to go in and enable the non-free drivers – but those little details defy logic and cause some people to walk away from Linux. There were also bigger issues, like packages that didn’t install right and things that looked like they could be made to work with a lot of hacking of configuration files at the command line. Overall, it was a lot of hassle that I didn’t want to deal with.

But because I wanted this to work, I keep looking. Interestingly, I found something I hadn’t seen or heard about before – a little Linux Ubuntu-based distribution aimed at lightweight cloud-based computing called Joli OS by Jolicloud. As I read more about it, I became intrigued and decided to give it a shot. It isn’t perfect – it has some flaws and needs some polish, and there are some significant problems that could cause it to stall if they’re not addressed. But I think this could be the one, or at least it could be a contender, because it has the right framework from what I’ve seen so far.

I hope you’ll join me in my next post, where I plan to discuss in detail my experiences with Joli OS. I’ve set myself some criteria, and I’m going to try to spend at least a couple of weeks using solely my netbook (no tablets) to see if a netbook built on a lightweight, Linux-based distribution can compete toe-to-toe with the big boys.