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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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