Dell takes baby steps toward Linux

Top PC vendor answers customers' demand for open source, tentatively

Thanks to Dell, soon it will be easier than ever to order a brand-new desktop or notebook PC with Linux pre-installed. But whether Dell's new program will really have an impact on the rate of Linux adoption in the enterprise is unclear at best.

For years, fans of Linux and other alternative operating systems have decried the so-called Microsoft tax: Buy a new PC from a major vendor and the hard drive comes preloaded with Windows, whether you want it or not. Even if you wipe the drive and install Linux yourself, included in the purchase price of your hardware was a license fee for a copy of Windows that no one will ever use.

A handful of Linux systems are available from the big suppliers today, Dell's n Series being a notable example. So far, however, the effort has been halfhearted. Dell actually offers more configurations bundled with FreeDOS than with Linux.

When Dell solicited input from its customers on its IdeaStorm Web site, better and broader support for open source software topped the list of suggestions. After Linux, support for the productivity suite came in second place.

The sheer volume of votes in favor of open source shows every indication of a grassroots campaign at work. Dell might have expected as much. What is unexpected, perhaps, is the fact that Dell is actually listening to these voices.

"We're crafting product offerings in response," read a message posted to the Direct2Dell blog last Tuesday, "but we'd like a little more direct feedback from you."

For the rest of the week, Dell's site will host a survey aimed at finding out just which Dell systems should ship with Linux, which version of Linux they should ship with, and what customers plan to use them for.

Of course, you can't please everybody. Critics are already pointing out that the survey offers a needlessly limited set of options. For example, Ubuntu is listed as a "community supported" distribution, despite the fact that full commercial support is available from Ubuntu's parent company, Canonical.

But Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, thinks ignorance of the Linux market might be the least of Dell's worries. In a blog post, he points out that the realities of the PC hardware market make it unlikely that Dell could ever meet the Linux community's most optimistic expectations.

For starters, he says, PC sales are a cutthroat business. Margins are shockingly low, and they shrink even more every time a customer picks up the phone to call for support. The bigger vendors actually rely on co-marketing arrangements with Microsoft to underwrite their products. With no similar arrangement available from the major Linux vendors and given the fact that a new Linux system will almost certainly generate more customer support calls than the equivalent Windows machine, it's unclear whether Dell will really be able to offer Linux systems at a price point that is as attractive as customers might expect.

Second, Shuttleworth points out that Linux customers can be notoriously fussy. With so many flavors and versions of Linux to choose from, no one vendor could offer every possible configuration that a customer might want.

Shuttleworth makes some excellent points, but the real problem may be that Dell is simply trying to tackle this problem the wrong way. One-off PC sales to individual hackers, enthusiasts, and small businesses may generate some limited amount of revenue, but it will be nothing compared to Linux's largest potential market -- which is, of course, the enterprise.

No matter how mature desktop Linux has become, it remains a niche product. It has gained a significant following among the developer community, academia, and the sciences, but in the business world its strongest market lies in such high-volume applications as call-center automation. These customers mainly intend to run Web-based applications and a handful of desktop tools. What they want most from their Linux installations is not versatility and choice, but homogeneity and reliability.

The sooner manufacturers such as Dell recognize this, the better. It should be clear by now that OS competition is in the long-term best interests of their customers, but too much choice has a way of becoming no choice at all. Dell should partner with a major desktop Linux supplier -- Novell, perhaps -- and deliver a single, highly functional, fully supported Linux desktop PC platform targeted at the enterprise market. The enthusiast market will always be willing to install their own, custom-tailored copies of Linux, no matter how much they may grumble. If Dell really wants to kick-start an industry, however, instead of wading tentatively into the Linux market, the best way to make a splash would be to dive in with both feet.