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Community: Should Hardware OEMs Be Picking Linux Distribution Winners?

[ 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)