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Editor's Note: Welcome to the 21st Century, Dell

Mar 10, 2006, 23:30 (21 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I have decided that Michael Dell is either crazy, or crazy like a fox.

After getting harangued by the good folks over at ZiffDavis last week, Mr. Dell decided to come out and do an interview with those same folks to clear the air about why Dell doesn't support desktop Linux yet. His answer? There are too many Linux distros out there. Oh, for the love of--!

This is a running gag from Mr. Dell, one we have all heard before. I even wrote about it the last time he said something along these lines. The gist of my solution? Pick one!

Pick one distro, support it, and let customers choose between Linux, NT, or XP. If the customer has to have another Linux distribution, let them install it on their own, and Dell can release them from their software support. After all, they have no compunctions killing off software support for users who go off and install Linux on one of their Windows OEM boxes, so why should they have a problem with a Linux-to-Linux migration?

Brilliant as my solution was, Mr. Dell clearly had this in mind when he reminded the ZD writers that they had indeed tried to choose one Linux distro before, and they had abysmal sales. Thus, I should stand corrected, right?

Not a chance.

In his interview, Mr. Dell said two things that rang huge alarm bells with me. First, he said they chose to sell and support Red Hat Linux in 2000 and it didn't work. 2000? No offense, but who the heck was in the market to buy pre-loaded Linux machines six years ago? IBM had just barely started to promote Linux as an enterprise play. The concept of Linux as a viable universal desktop solution back then was wishful thinking at best. The only market for buying a preloaded Linux machine in 2000 was the hard-core Linux users and early adopters.

Want more evidence? Check out what else Mr. Dell said, which rang the other alarm: when they went with Red Hat, too many people complained that they went with the wrong distro. Dell "tried that with Red Hat on the OptiPlex and Dimension lines, but we had too many people not buying and saying we picked the wrong one," Mr. Dell said in the ZD interview. The company, faced with low sales and negative feedback, dumped the Linux machines in 2001.

Well of course people complained! In 2000-2001, most of the people using Linux were the hard-core hobbyists, geeks, and developers. They were still having religious wars about vi vs. emacs, for goodness' sakes!

The fact is, when Dell tried selling Linux desktops in 2000, they were too early. The interested market at that time was still in the early-adoption phase and, as the open source community can be, rather contentious (now we're all polite and civilized-like).

Mr. Dell's remarks demonstrate that there was no way Dell reached the business market at the turn of the century, because business IT professionals who were going to try out Linux at that time would not give a darn about what distro they had. If Dell had sold them Darkseid Linux v.0.2, they would not have cared, as long as it worked and was "Linux."

Did Dell get burned? I'm sure they did. But the fact is, they are basing their arguments now on events of six years ago. Today, the entire environment in and around Linux has changed. Enterprise adoption rates are growing strongly. Small- to medium-size markets are starting to take a look at Linux as a better desktop solution. There is, now, a real demand for pre-loaded, supported Linux machines. And Dell should understand that the vast majority of these business customers will not care which Linux Dell wants to support.

The people who do care, the people like me, might buy one anyway and install what we want. Even if I don't like the Linux Dell chooses, I would rather not have to pay the Microsoft tax for a machine preloaded with XP. The distro/religious wars are a thin excuse. Yes, there are still those passionate about their distribution choices, but that is not where the real target market is for Dell.

Dell seems to be tapped into this idea a little bit: they are offering naked PCs from their nSeries. I think that's a good halfway step. But given that most end-users (especially in the SMB space) are used to getting software support from the PC vendor these days, the next step--to supporting one of the Linux distros--needs to be taken. Perhaps, as one reader here at LT suggested, one of the commercial Linux vendors should step up and partner with Dell and help provide the support.

The Linux infrastructure, the community, and the end-user have all changed since the 20th Century.

Welcome to 2006, Mr. Dell. Your customers are waiting.