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Community: Should Hardware OEMs Be Picking Linux Distribution Winners?

Oct 09, 2004, 04:00 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Zeek Greko)

[ Thanks to Zeek Greko for this article. ]

Do we want a de facto standard to emerge from the upcoming, or to put it more accurately, the ongoing capitalist, competitive, GNU/Linux distribution poker games? Should marketing prowess, mergers, acquisitions, or having loads of cash when getting to the game table be the determining factors in what is considered software excellence? Do we want--or should we even tolerate--a de facto standard GNU/Linux distribution emerging simply because hardware OEMs choose to back one distribution over others for pre-installation?

A de facto standard community-based (non-commercial) operating system core that all of the various distributions would built upon might be desirable and a great thing for compatibility, but we should diligently strive to get, then preserve, a choice of GNU/Linux distributions available for pre-install by all computer hardware OEMs. A standardized method of achieving this goal should be devised, adopted, then strictly adhered to.

Forum and e-mail reactions to my earlier article (Do we really want OEM PC's, Laptops with only GNU/Linux Preinstalled) were wholly predictable. The recurring theme was "We Want Choice!" Obviously that choice was within the context of being between a Windows or Linux preinstall, or neither at a reduced price.

What about a choice between Linux and Linux preinstalls, though?

I think we can safely assume that we all want choice there as well. HP's NX5000 comes with SUSE preinstalled. Do they offer a choice of other Linux distributions preinstalled as well? No? How about buying the NX5000 with no Operating System at a reduced price? No? GNU/Linux finally got a tier one OEM to offer a Windowless computer preinstalled with Linux, but unless you are totally enamored of the Novell/SUSE version of GNU/Linux you still have no choice.

In fairness, should HP be expected to offer a choice of all of the hundreds of Linux distros for preinstallation? Of course not. They shouldn't need to be concerned with anything more than the hardware, which, as I imagine (though don't know) is roughly the arrangement they have with Novell/SUSE. Should we somehow be upset with Novell/SUSE for getting there first? No on that one, too. They're just playing a hand of capitalist, competitive, market share poker. Just like everyone else.

Should HP offer the NX5000 with no operating system preinstalled, just bundling it with a current set of your favorite distros general purpose CD's for the same price? Why would anyone even want that? What we're looking for is the "works out of the box, put away the Pry Bar and the Valium, Pre-Install!" Right? I thought so.

What Is A "Pre-installed" Operating System

Strictly speaking, the concept of a pre-install is, the Operating System is physically on the hard disk drive. Where after pushing the power button then agreeing to (while assuming an appropriately bent over forward posture) the End User License Agreement, you are then greeted by a fully functional, "no fuss" pre-configured operating system, optimized by professionals (Guru's) for your specific hardware platform.

A broader interpretation of the pre-install would be by way of a Recovery/Backup Disk. Where when shipped, the operating system may or may not be physically on the hard disk drive. When it is not, the recovery disk must be inserted into the optical disk drive (CD/DVD/CDRW) then after being presented with a number of simple menu choices (for example: Language, Single System, Dual Boot, etc...) the operating system is installed or an image of the operating system is then transfered to the hard disk drive. After a few minutes transfer time, you end up with the same "no-fuss," fully functional, pre-configured operating system, optimized by professionals (gurus) for your specific hardware platform.

Both of these methods are good, and they get the job done very well. The end results are identical. What is common with both is that they are absolutely not general purpose versions of whatever OS you intend to install. They are (if done properly) highly tuned to that specific hardware/platform. Hence the end user is presented with stellar performance out of the box and isn't bothered with any core system configurations. Everything just works.

The Recovery/Backup disk method has one important advantage however: they reside and are shipped on an external disk or disks, which enables an unlimited selectable choice of operating systems for any given platform, even dual boot (having multiple selectable operating systems on one computer).

This Recovery/Backup disk method of pre-installation is the alternative (flip side) to the standard yet still seldom easy GNU/Linux install. Rather than certifying hardware for use with the various general purpose Distributions. The various distributions are certified, customized, and optimized for use with a specific hardware platform. This affords distros the greatest control over the end users installation experience, and lowers precipitously the costs involved with supporting the customers initial setup process. This results in the greatest possible out of box experience for the end user, which then equates to increased customer satisfaction.

Opportunities Available "Now"

Within the context of the broad definition of a pre-install (above), if your favorite distribution isn't available today, "preinstalled" on either a Laptop or a PC (and in most cases it isn't), the blame can only be placed squarely in fact on your own favorite distribution. This is due to a lack of insight on their part to take advantage of opportunities that are currently available to them, as demonstrated here.

Using HP's NX5000 as an example: any GNU/Linux distribution could acquire (purchase/borrow) an HP NX5000 Laptop, then set their most competent gurus to the task of creating their best version of an optimized Recovery/Backup disk for pre-install on the NX5000. This could be with or without HP's blessing or consent.

With HP's blessing however, depending on what their contractual arrangements are with Novell/SUSE (is it exclusive?), HP could indeed then offer a huge selection of Linux distros preinstalled on the NX5000. Simply by ending their area of responsibility at the actual hardware for any Linux distributions whos custom Recovery/Backup disks they would certify for the NX5000 and leaving software support responsibilities to each of the respective distributions.

Warranty Certification would be necessary to assure avoidance of unfortunate occurrences like the Mandrake "CDROM Killer" release of recent memory. Even without formal certification, though, problems like these are unlikely to occur again while using the Recovery/Backup disk method of preinstall and gurus to monitor the process. These problems would be found prior to release during the Recovery/Backup disk building stage.

Of course without HP's blessing, you would have to pay a Novell/SUSE tax when buying the NX5000, but you would ultimately end up with your favorite distro pre-installed on HP's NX5000 hardware.

Continuing with this line of reasoning, the possibilities become many. Now "any" Linux capable PC or laptop available for sale "anywhere" is a viable candidate for being fitted with an optimized preinstall of your favorite Linux distribution. With or without the consent of the manufacturer or distributor (think XBox). Linux Certified, for example, has a half dozen or so Linux capable laptops available for sale without Windows. A cursory check found only Xandros and Linspire offered for preinstall at this time.

The Recovery/Backup disk method would enable Linux Certified to easily and effortlessly offer a choice of a customer's favorite distro on all of their PCs and laptops. Hopefully they would offer this willingly, but their non-consent would not be a huge barrier. Again, you would then have to pay either a Xandros or Linspire tax, but you would ultimately end up with your favorite distro pre-installed on their offerings as well.

GNU/Linux value (cheap) boxes have surfaced in the last year or so. This method would apply equally to their offerings as well. Barring some kind of contractual restrictions preventing it, there are no good reasons why these PC builders wouldn't want to increase their sales volumes by broadening access to their products and offering choice.

Other avenues for this method of preinstalled GNU/Linux are also available. Alliances could be struck between the Linux community as a whole and/or each individual Linux Distribution, and White Box computer distributors. (In the interest of inclusivity and reaching the widest possible group of people, It may be wise to first choose distributors with toll free numbers and visible, verifiable mailing addresses because many Linux supporters absolutely will not make purchases online.)

When Linux-capable components are preselected and bundled with Linux-capable bare bones PC kits to make complete systems, optimized Recovery/Backup disks could then be created on a finished sample kit by any number of the Linux distributions. These systems could be bundled with each kit per the customer's choice of one or of however many different distros they want.

End result? Pre-installed OEM-class, kit PCs equivalent in performance and functionally to any tier-one OEM's offerings (OEM-style, fully configured, and DRM-free Freevo and MythTV boxes have great potential here).

These kinds of alliances would also have a positive effect on the general availability and identifiability of Linux capable components. The reason being that allied white box distributors with even marginal Linux sales volumes would be mindful of their Linux customers when making purchases for their entire inventory, likely opting to favor components and peripherals that are compatible with both Windows and Linux. It's not unthinkable to imagine seeing at these White Box dealers websites, Tux icons displayed near Linux-compatible components, add-ons, and peripherals. This would reduce time wasted searching, and the great frustrationsthat currently exists identifying Linux-capable components because the generic chip sets used in products are seldom listed.

There is also nothing to stop their direct competitors from offering identical kits too, which would also cause them to be more mindful of Linux compatibility and identifiability when choosing and displaying their product lines. So, too, when you consider that industry analysts estimate that nearly half of all new computers sold are white boxes, hardware manufacturers finding their products passed over because they lack this cross platform capability will likely take steps to remedy this non trivial situation.

GNU/Linux In Retail, Giving Wal-Mart The Dual Boot

As stated in the earlier article, many end users must dual boot if for no other reason than as part of a weening-off process from Windows. When stumped by some aspect of GNU/Linux, they can run back to the "safety of Windows" (an oxymoron, to be sure) until they get that particular situation sorted out. And, if anyone requires Windows and wants Linux too, they will pay a much lower Microsoft tax (OEM prices instead of retail) if a Linux-capable computer preinstalled with Windows is purchased. This makes the best of a less than ideal situation.

Whether serendipitously or by intent, Wal-Mart is currently offering Linux-capable laptops (models A535 and CN6302) at previously unheard of desktop prices. These are perfect candidates and a great opportunity for the various GNU/Linux distributions to break into retail by making available custom GNU/Linux Recovery/Backup disks that are intended for dual booting on these Laptops.

Adopting a "Just do it" posture would send Wal-Mart a message that the GNU/Linux community will bring the added value of perfectly mated GNU/Linux distributions to any Linux-capable computers they sell. Possibly being offered as optional unsupported accessories by Wal-Mart, at least initially. Absent any major problems developing from this (a test period), at some future point offering a choice of Windows or Linux only computers also.

Wal-Mart is in the supremely enviable position that besides being in and of themselves huge, they sell huge volumes of discount priced computers, but unlike the tier-one OEMs, computers are not their life blood. Microsoft cannot intimidate Wal-Mart. This could put Wal-Mart (and their direct competitors) at the forefront of likely risk-free adopters to offer discounted Linux-only computers to the main stream retail market.

Microsoft's OEM price for Windows is estimated by industry analysts to be around US$50.00/€40.25. Estimated because it is a closely guarded secret, undoubtedly backed up by NDA (non disclosure agreement). If the various participating GNU/Linux distributions set their OEM (Linux-only) or accessory (dual boot) price for their offerings at, say, US$20.00/&euro16.11 (same price for even the free distros), this would allow Wal-Mart to offering their customers a choice of Windows or Linux on their computers for the same retail price (because they can't reveal the Windows OEM price), Walmart would net the additional non-trivial estimated amount of US$30.00/€24.14 profit from the sale of each Linux-only computer. A substantial incentive for welcoming GNU/Linux into their product line,wouldn't you say?

Conclusion

In our on going poker game in the commercial Linux arena, default winners being chosen by hardware OEMs should be actively avoided. These hardware OEMs should be encouraged to offer a choice of GNU/Linux distributions with their hardware offerings.

Although Live CDs and General Purpose GNU/Linux distributions have their place, they simply aren't the best choice in the OEM new-computer market, where Recovery/Backup disks appear to be the best in terms of choice and ease of use. There are many market opportunities available today to the GNU/Linux community that aren't being exploited to their fullest potential. Even dual-boot (Linux/Windows) computers help to increase GNU/Linux mind share, if not its direct market share. Increased mind share eventually leads to increased market share. To achieve this, the various GNU/Linux distributions just need to come to the game table and ante up.

Related Story:
Community: Do We Really Want OEM PCs, Laptops With Only GNU/Linux Preinstalled?(Sep 25, 2004)