More boldness needed in Dell's desktop Linux foray

The PC maker should dive in to open source world, not just dip its toes in the water, says Neil McAllister

Thanks to Dell, it will soon be easier than ever to order a brand-new desktop or notebook PC with Linux pre-installed. But whether Dell’s new programme will really have an impact on the rate of Linux adoption in the enterprise is unclear at best.

For years, fans of Linux and other alternative operating systems have decried the so-called Microsoft tax: Buy a new PC from a major vendor and the hard drive comes preloaded with Windows, whether you want it or not. Even if you wiped the drive and installed Linux yourself, a licence fee for a copy of Windows that no one will ever use was included in the price of the PC.

A handful of Linux systems are available from the big suppliers today, Dell’s n Series being a notable example, but so far, however, the effort has been half-hearted.

When Dell solicited input from its customers on its IdeaStorm website, better and broader support for open source software topped the list of suggestions.

The sheer volume of votes in favour of open source shows every indication of a grassroots campaign at work. Dell might have expected as much. What is unexpected, perhaps, is the fact that Dell is actually listening to these voices.

“We’re crafting product offerings in response,” read a message posted to the Direct2Dell blog recently, “but we’d like a little more direct feedback from you.”

Of course, you can’t please everybody. Critics are already pointing out that the survey offers a needlessly limited set of options. For example, Ubuntu is listed as a “community supported” distribution, despite the fact that full commercial support is available from Ubuntu’s parent company, Canonical.

But Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s founder, thinks ignorance of the Linux market might be the least of Dell’s worries. In a blog post, he points out that the realities of the PC hardware market make it unlikely that Dell could ever meet the Linux community’s most optimistic expectations.

For starters, he says, PC sales are a cut-throat business. Margins are thin and the bigger vendors actually rely on co-marketing arrangements with Microsoft to underwrite their products. With no similar arrangement available from the major Linux vendors, it’s unclear whether Dell will really be able to offer Linux systems at an attractive price point.

Second, Shuttleworth points out that Linux customers can be notoriously fussy. With so many flavours and versions of Linux to choose from, no one vendor could offer every possible configuration a customer might want.

Shuttleworth makes some excellent points, but the real problem may be that Dell is simply trying to tackle this problem the wrong way. One-off PC sales to individual hackers, enthusiasts and small businesses may generate some limited amount of revenue, but it will be nothing compared to Linux’s largest potential market — which is, of course, the enterprise.

No matter how mature desktop Linux has become, it remains a niche product. It has gained a significant following among the developer community, academia and the sciences, but in the business world its strongest market lies in such high-volume applications as call centre automation. These customers mainly intend to run web-based applications and a handful of desktop tools. What they want most from their Linux installations is not versatility and choice, but homogeneity and reliability.

The sooner manufacturers such as Dell recognise this, the better. It should be clear by now that OS competition is in the long-term best interests of their customers, but too much choice has a way of becoming no choice at all.

Dell should partner with a major desktop Linux supplier and deliver a single, highly functional, fully supported Linux desktop PC platform targeted at the enterprise market. Enthusiasts will always be willing to install their own, custom-tailored copies of Linux, no matter how much they may grumble. If Dell really wants to kick-start an industry, however, instead of wading tentatively into the Linux market, the best way to make a splash would be to dive in with both feet.

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Tags technologyDelldesktop linux

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