Q

Pre-loaded Linux PCs

An open source strategies expert tackles the issue of Linux on pre-loaded Linux PCs.

Isn't it cheaper to pre-load Linux on mass-market PCs? Why doesn't Dell do this? That seems to be the desire of their customers according to the IdeaStorm site.
It's easy to think that Dell (for instance) could simply omit the Microsoft OS on a machine and sell it for less (by, say, the cost to Dell of the OS) to users. Before we go into the reasons this is not so, and discuss all the issues facing Dell (or anyone else) in selling Linux-installed machines to the public, let's talk about the obvious one: the new product would sell fewer units than the old product (the same machine with Windows installed), and have to be built and stocked separately. These product expenses would have to be amortized across fewer machines. It is conceivable that all the special handling and accounting might drive the price of the Linux machine above that of the Windows machine.

But Dell will build them if customers want them. In the late 1990s, Dell was building Linux-installed machines in Ireland for sale in Europe. What I was able to find out at the time was that the number was small and it was a special order for government. But the Dell road to popular Linux machines has been rocky. At the first LinuxWorld held in San Jose, Michael Dell gave a keynote in which he talked about Dell offering Linux machines....

His audience promptly got up on their hind legs and complained that they could not find any at all on the Dell site, and that he should quit peddling banana oil.

Currently, Dell does ship desktops and workstations with RHEL on them (as do IBM and others). One Dell machine is less than $1000 and includes a year of Red Hat Network support. The question is, do any of these Linux-installed shippers include among their Linux offerings the very machine you'd like to have? Probably not --Linux users are very picky.

Dell is currently testing the water by asking users what sort of a machine and distro they'd like to have. Although the poll closes 23 March, do not expect any announcements soon. They still have to study the answers, estimate the size of the market and decide on just what to offer. What if 95% of customers want to dual-boot, so that it is easier for Dell to offer only dual-boot machines?

What distro? Should they pick SUSE, and tell users to buy support after (say) the first 30 days? Should they pick Ubuntu and tell users they look to the Ubuntu community for support? In any case, they would be smart to set up a Dell/Linux community site that gets users and Dell experts together to conduct discussions, answer questions and promote product improvements. Drivers would be a particularly hot topic.

That brings us to hardware. Dell can't pick anything that uses a Microsoft OS to perform hardware functions (Winprinters, Winmodems). They might be able to apply some leverage to hardware makers to cooperate more on turning out Linux drivers, although it's unlikely that all of the drivers would end up being purely open source.

And somewhere along the line Dell will have to deal with Microsoft pressure not to offer Linux (and if Dell really promoted a Dell/Linux online community Microsoft might be very annoyed). But what if Microsoft's new accommodation with Linux made Microsoft easier to cooperate with? Microsoft might well pressure Dell to pick SUSE as the OS, and even offer to discount to Dell some of the SUSE support coupons Microsoft acquired from Novell. Dell would then be helping Microsoft spread the word that only SUSE is the official Linux blessed to interoperate with Microsoft products.

On the other hand, Dell's buying of fewer copies of Windows might cause a rise in the price of copies actually purchased. And by dropping Microsoft from some machines, Dell would lose the income from all of the vendors who pay to have their products added onto Dell's new machines.

Dell is going to look very hard at the investment it would make in offering everyday machines with Linux on them. Would they end up with unhappy newbies dragging down their support system? Would they be flamed mercilesly by self-regarding expert (1337) users? Would Dell's Linux investment buy them a market or trouble?

It will be interesting to watch. If Windows Vista sales continue to drag, Dell might very well decide to seize the opportunity.

This was first published in March 2007

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