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Editor's Note: Blame Dell or Help Them?

Mar 02, 2007, 23:30 (30 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

There is much anger and disappointment in the community this week, regarding the seemingly near-miss of a major U.S. hardware vendor finally announcing that they would pre-install Linux on their machines, only to turn around the next day that they were not pre-installing, only certifying some machines to run with--horror of horrors--Novell's SUSE Linux, the current black sheep of the Linux world.

Except that's not the way it happened. At all.

When Dell got the brilliant idea to launch their online suggestion box, IdeaStorm, I am sure they were more than a little surprised when the top suggestions included many calls for selling pre-loaded Linux machines. I don't know why they were surprised--what else would be suggested? Other than "sell cheaper machines," I don't know any other pressing issues an Intel-based hardware vendor would get from the user community. It's not as if there are vast, unknown paths for consumer and business computers to explore right now.

Plus, let's be honest, shall we? I strongly suspect that the IdeaStorm Web site was the victim of a grassroots ballot-stuffing campaign, where enthusiatic Linux users decided to send a message to the computer vendor. I would be very interested to see the incoming IP addesses on the IdeaStorm logs, and compare them to IPs that visit LT, Slashdot, or the open source sections of Digg.

Regardless of how those votes got there, Dell opted to respond to the number one idea in their suggestion box by telling everyone they would look into it, and would definitely start working with Novell to certify Dell machines for Linux. That was it. No mention of pre-loading, pre-installation, or pre-anything. Certification. Go back and read the original response, if you don't believe me.

Then came the dawn, and suddenly the news wires were full of stories that Dell was about to start selling pre-loaded machines.


Anyone who thinks Dell somehow went back on their word is in error: Dell never said they would sell pre-loaded machines. It's no wonder that they came back with a clarification in the next day's news cycle.

In their clarification, they repeated they were working with Novell to get their machines certified for SUSE Linux. That got some people even more upset. Here, I'm puzzled. Why? Or, a better question: what else would you expect?

Dell already has a solid relationship with Microsoft, and they know (probably better than anyone) just what kind of hardball Redmond will play. If Microsoft intimates that Novell's Linux is somehow safer from intellectual property concerns than other distributions, I see no reason why Dell wouldn't believe it.

If I thought this conspiracy theory was the primary reason Dell chose Novell. Oh, don't get me wrong, I think it's a part of the reason--but not the biggest deciding factor.

The biggest reason Dell is talking to Novell is the same reason they haven't preloaded Linux on any of their product line: support costs.

See, Dell has a problem. Somewhere along the line, Windows users no longer called Microsoft for support. They were encouraged to call the hardware manufacturers instead. So, instead of Redmond having to deal with the costs of support, they neatly outsourced it to Dell, Gateway, eMachines, and whatever other vendor that preloads Windows.

In those agreements, I am sure Microsoft is helping to foot the manufacturers' support costs. In fact, I am sure of it. Why else would the few "naked" PCs cost more than a pre-loaded Windows machine? It's because for every one of those OS-less machines the hardware vendor sells, they lose support reimbursement money from Microsoft and any revenue they might have gotten from user support subscriptions.

This no small obstacle for companies like Dell to surmount. Under their current business model, offering Linux on their machines would actually lose them money. Not just make them less money: lose money.

In the user world, there are going to be two kinds of Linux users that Dell would have to deal with: power users and everyone else.

Power users, people like me and a good chunk of Linux Today's readers, don't need a lot of support. They have been using Linux for a while, and they know many of its tricks. Or, they are new to Linux but they are tech-oriented and have no problems trying to figure out solutions to problems on their own. I had this last week: I wanted to install a new theme on my KDE desktop and ended up having to compile a scheme before it would work. Unfortunately, I didn't have all of the right compiliation tools. Nevertheless, I thought nothing of spending the time Googling around and surfing the tech forums to find the answer.

People like me? We're not going to pay Dell for any support subscription. We wouldn't dream of it. Heck, when Windows got bad for us, did we look to the hardware vendors for help? Good grief, no! We went installed a completely different operating system!

Clearly, Dell expects no money from us.

As for everyone else, the very practice of providing proxy Windows support has set an elegant trap for Dell. When a "normal" PC user buys a Dell PC, Dell knows full well that this customer will expect, and demand, support from Dell. Not Microsoft. So, the question for Dell becomes, if we sell Linux PCs, who's supporting those users? And, more importantly, how does Dell not lose money in the process?

Does the support come from Dell? That would keep the same infrastruture going, but now you have to train all of those support people to handle Linux. And that costs money. Even after the initial training, the ongoing costs of support will also need subsidized, to replace the money lost from Redmond. Raise the subscription costs for support? Maybe, but that could scare off customers, especially when they find out that--unlike the Windows world--there is a vast array of free support out there for Linux.

What about support from a Linux vendor? That could work, but Dell is going to have to change their business model and somehow make the same amount of money from a PC that's suddenly not generating any support revenue for Dell. Plus, they have to find a vendor that's willing to do it, and is able to do it. Support on a massive scale is not easy, or cheap.

Red Hat might be able to do it, but they're not interested in the desktop market right now. Who does that leave? The one and only Novell. The one vendor with the wherewithall, the expertise, and the desire to support Linux PCs sold on a mass scale. That's probably why Dell is talking to Novell: to flesh out just who's going to support what and how much money will have to come from all partners.

Unless vendors like Dell can flip the current business model around and make money instead of losing it by selling Linux PCs, they will never. Ever. Sell pre-loaded Linux PCs.

It's a big problem, one that I think Dell wouldn't mind solving, since being beholden to a single operating system closes off some big markets to them, as more governments and businesses explore open source platforms. There's the other side of the argument, of course, that Dell is nice and cozy in its relationship with Redmond, and has no motive to change.

I, for one, am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, instead of screaming at Dell, we can try to figure out creative ways to help them solve the business problem of selling Linux machines.

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