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Community: Do We Really Want OEM PCs, Laptops With Only GNU/Linux Preinstalled?

Sep 25, 2004, 02:00 (40 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Zeek Greko)

[ Thanks to Zeek Greko for this article. ]

Linux preloaded on PCs and laptops is greatly desirable to many of us in the GNU/Linux Community. However, there are practical considerations to address.

Just last week NewsForge ran an article by Chris DiBona, a staunch GNU/Linux advocate. In his piece he indicated (admitted) that in order to use some of his preferred (considers he can't do without) applications, he has to dual boot with Windows XP.

In his case, and I suspect many others are in the same boat as well, he would have to purchase and install Windows XP separately to get the desired configuration he currently needs. We also just completed the Back To School computer purchase cycle where a great number of schools and colleges require Windows. However unfair, this would add the price of Windows XP on top of any student's PC or laptop purchases. This defeats the avoidance of the Microsoft Tax and forwarding GNU/Linux's market share and popularity purpose of preinstalled "GNU/Linux only" computers.

This is the case at least for the time being, while waiting for schools, colleges, and other institutions to accept GNU/Linux, and for some of these ISV (independent software vendors) to come up to speed with porting and supporting GNU/Linux with these "Can't Do Without" commercial applications. Or when other acceptable-easy-alternative applications become available. Why don't we, as a community, try the flip side of this equation?

What is the flip side you ask?

The GNU/Linux community might be better served by pushing for 100% GNU/Linux compatible computers instead. Then, at least attempt to provide and support (after the initial install, support becomes standard fare) a "No Brain" dual boot or replacement distribution for these Linux-capable PCs and laptops that are sold in high volume. This is a no-risk proposition for the "Linux curious" consumer and the economics make vastly more sense.

Plus, the OEMs would be given a viable non-threatening path towards GNU/Linux support, just by building and shipping computers where all the hardware will easily work with GNU/Linux. Rather than OEMs taking a direct frontal, confrontational OS choice approach with Microsoft, since end-users are not the only ones that are affected by vendor lock-in.

(As a bit of a sidebar, if your throw in some bad publicity to OEMs who intentionally and needlessly limit their customers "choice" of operating systems with their offerings, and you have a pretty good motivator towards compliance. A headline example could read: "Dell's New XYZ Model PCs and Laptops Limit Customer Choice".)

I've read many news pieces and blogs implying that in the back rooms, behind the scenes, OEMs would love to get on board with total GNU/Linux support. But they fear angering Microsoft and risking their bread and butter businesses currently centered around Microsoft. Losing the promotional and kickback payments they currently receive from Microsoft would put them at a competitive disadvantage. If these OEMs use only GNU/Linux supported hardware components, they will have an "out" and would be enough for us as a community to reasonably expect until GNU/Linux reaches a critical mass.

A Practical GNU/Linux Community Path To Adoption

As mentioned earlier, we just completed the Back To School computer buying cycle. I was approached by many parents and friends, quizzing me on the best computers to buy for their children/students. In many cases they provided a list of minimum requirements from their children's respective schools. You guessed correctly, they all require Windows 2K/XP.

So where did I point them? Well, first off, I believe students have enough stuff to schlep around without them having to carry around and set up a full desktop PC. So I recommend a desktop replacement laptop/notebook. Then, from a GNU/Linux advocate's point of view, I either must find a preloaded GNU/Linux laptop (few and far between and relatively expensive) then install Win2K/XP to meet their schools' requirements, or find a GNU/Linux supported laptop with Windows preloaded, then dual boot it with a GNU/Linux distribution I am comfortable supporting.

While feeling backed up against a wall with this task, I started looking for the practical, best case, real-world solution with all things considered. While surfing around looking, I happened upon a particular laptop model at Wal-Mart. The model number A535 struck a chord in my memory. Yes! That's it! The same model number ECS A535 Lindows/now Linspire announced they would be pre installing their Operating System on a few months ago!

It's not only GNU/Linux compatible, but it's a great deal for a laptop regardless of the OS choice.

I put the word out. Buy this A535 at Wal-Mart or the equally compatible CN6302 (same model w/extras) beefier sibling with a DVD/CDRW 256 MB RAM, AMD XP1800+ and a better battery (specifications for both models below).

The thank you notes from parents who who got these desktop replacement laptops are still coming in. They love 'em. Some have said that they normally would have been fearful of buying an important piece of equipment like a computer from Wal-Mart. But they couldn't be happier now. And nearly every one of these laptops will become dual boot GNU/Linux/Windows Laptops in the near future. Enter-broad smile and snicker...


We are in a world where it is currently nearly impossible, in most cases, to avoid the Windows operating system. To buy a computer that lacks this essential component (Windows), which is basically thrown in with every computer shipped, at far below the price of purchasing it at retail, then having to add it later to meet your needs anyway doesn't make sense.

We as a community would do well to push for 100% compatibility then hook users up with a GNU/Linux. Those who don't have a need for Windows can apply for a refund for it. Last I heard, it is required by law to refund to those who don't want it.

So, in this case anyway, you have a choice: you can buy one of HP's new half-hearted attempts at Linux preinstalled laptops, the NX5000 then add Windows for $100 plus dollars. Or, you can buy two of these commodity priced Linux compatible laptops at Wal-Mart and add your favorite distro for free. Hmmm... tough choice!

[First] Basic Model
Model No. A535 $598.00 Approx-$605.00 Shipped
AMD Athlon XP-M 1600+ processor
14.1" XGA TFT LCD screen
40 GB hard drive
128 MB RAM
DVD-ROM drive
Integrated 802.11b wireless networking
Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition

[Second] Same Notebook with enhancements
Balance by ECS
Model No. CN6302
$698.00 Aprox-$705.00 Shipped
AMD Athlon XP-M 1800+ processor
14.1-inch XGA TFT LCD screen
40 GB hard drive
256 MB RAM
DVD-ROM / CDRW drive
Integrated 802.11b wireless networking
Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition

Improved specs compared to the $598 model
1800+ processor (compared to a 1600+)
Additional 128 MB of RAM
Built-in CD/RW burner
8-cell battery for longer-lasting power

Accessories Included with Both Models
AC adapter, removable battery, Windows XP Home Edition, InterVideo WinDVD 4 software for playing DVDs