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Community Column: Let's Preinstall for the OEMs

Mar 23, 2001, 12:46 (32 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eugene Magnier)

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By Eugene Magnier

I recently wrote a letter to eMachines. I have an eMachine at home, and several of my colleagues have them at work. All of them run Linux, and Linux only. My letter to eMachines discussed this fact and encouraged them to consider pre-installing Linux for the home desktop user. I pointed out the fact that they have experience selling cut-rate computer solutions. They are currently selling computers that push the lower limit of costs without requiring the customer to sign up for a service. Their company description makes it clear that they depend on selling packaged advertising as part of their revenue stream. I pointed out that every machine they sell that is converted to Linux is a loss to this model: they still have to pay the MS tax, but they and their ad clients lose the revenue stream they expected. They would do better to offer a Linux installation (with or without the ads), save the MS tax, and possibly maintain the revenue stream. It makes sense, there are good arguments for them to pre-install Linux, and I thought my letter was very convincing (at least to me!).

But later that day, I had a realization.

Why should we wait for OEMs to pre-install Linux? Why should we wait for them to get the ball rolling? If our goal is world domination, perhaps we should help the OEMs. We should organize a project to create custom installations specifically targeting machines currently on the market.

After all, Linux has been built on home-grown support for hardware. We haven't been waiting for monitor vendors, or graphics card vendors, or anyone else really to support Linux for their hardware. We have been doing it ourselves. Well, the machine sold by some OEM is just another unsupported device that we should target.

I propose a project that creates different installations for as many machines as possible, in their factory configuration. There would be two ISO images available: an installation disk, and a 'try me' disk.

The installation disk would assume a factory configuration for a specific machine. It would take over part of the hard drive and install the Linux distribution, with all of the drivers needed for the hardware known to be included with the specific model.

The 'try me' disk would boot into Linux from the CD, use a folder on the windows partition to store preferences, and run a sample distribution for users who want to try Linux but are scared of the install.

The project would define a 'generic' installation, and all of the specific machines would only have to differ from that installation by a limited number of drivers and other hardware choices. Anyone who has installed Linux on a machine could potentially contribute the information needed to define the specific distribution.

This concept would help the desktop battle in two ways.

The first benefit is to reduce the hurdle needed to perform the installation, especially for the new users, the faint-of-heart and the lazy. Today if you are considering installing Linux, you need to do a little research to make sure all of your components work. If you want to buy a machine off the shelf, you have to look in a number of different hardware compatibility lists, etc. But, with the proposed model, you simply go to a site and find the make and model of machine you want to buy, download the ISO and bingo!

The second benefit, which may help the cause more substantially in the long run, is to make an installation that the OEM can even consider offering as a pre-installed system.

Imagine you are eMachines (or any other OEM). You've been losing installations to Linux for a while without realizing it, or at least without knowing how many have been lost. You've contemplated offering Linux pre-installed, but know that it would take some investment that you can ill-afford to get the system tuned as needed. Suddenly an ISO is being offered that is specifically targeted at one of your models. How trivial it suddenly becomes to consider pre-installing Linux on that machine. It would certainly help make the case if the number of ISO downloads for each type of machine are also listed on the download page. If you are Compaq or eMachines and you notice that suddenly thousands of people are downloading a Linux specifically targeting one of your machines, you have a huge incentive to include that installation.

A project like this could be run either by one of the existing distributions, targeting their own distribution, or it could be done in a distribution independent way. The differences between different hardware configurations is mostly independent of the differences between the distributions. The downloads could include variants for some of the bigger distributions. Imagine how easy this could be: You want a machine and decide you really like the Acer FP2-T800A, which is of course only offered with WinME. You go to the download page, and grab the ISO 'Acer.FP2-T800A.redhat.install.iso'. Burn it to CD, pop it in your machine, and away you go.

More and more OEMs are offering Linux installations for servers. (I was surprised to see Linux prominently listed on the Acer home page while doing my research!). They will eventually offer Linux pre-installed. But in the meantime, we continue to moan about the lack of pre-installed systems. Until OEMs actually offer desktop Linux installations, it is up to us to do the job for them!

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