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Dell Flirts with Linux

Funny little story this week regarding Dell. A couple of weeks ago, the computer maker launched a suggestion-box site called IdeaStorm. (Really, did somebody get paid to come up with that name? Maybe we should call this newsletter WordFlood.) Within about 10 days of its launch, IdeaStorm got bombarded with posts from users demanding that Dell release PCs pre-installed with Linux. Dell then released a statement saying that it would certify some of its lines of computers to work with SuSE Linux from Novell, which is the distribution of Microsoft interoperability fame. So then a bunch of half-baked stories and blog entries (most of which seem to have disappeared) came out in the tech world talking about how Dell is going to offer PCs with Linux pre-installed.

Well, uh, sort of ... but not quite. Dell is going to certify some of its mainstream computers to run SuSE Linux, meaning that they should work with the operating system. It already offers some high-end machines with Linux pre-installed. The company is also talking about selling more computer lines with no OS at all installed. But massive pre-installation of Linux on mainstream PCs isn't going to happen ... yet. Why? Because, as the second article linked above notes, neither Dell nor Linux enthusiasts can decide on which distribution of the OS to use. (Plus, Dell apparently doesn't support Linux on its machines. No small matter, that.)

Therein lies the continuing problem with Linux and the reason Microsoft isn't sweating open source more than it already is -- a lack of organization in the open-source community around Linux and a lack of consensus among Linux users about which distro should be standard. (And there has to be a standard eventually, right? For business use and supportability, there does.) In fact, some experts are not so sure that Dell offering Linux broadly is such a great idea ... for a lot of reasons, compatibility and support issues chief among them. As we've said here before, the business case for switching from Windows to Linux has never been clear, and there's no solid proof (and if you have some, please send it our way) that Linux is cheaper to run than Windows in the long run.

Keeping all of that in mind, more than 80,000 users (and perhaps far more than that by the time this e-mail hits your inbox or you read the blog entry) had hit IdeaStorm demanding Linux on Dell PCs. Of course, you know how the internet can be -- a small but determined minority can make itself look very large and influential on certain sites. Still, 80,000 -- in not quite two weeks -- is a big number of user demands, and it's one that Dell is obviously taking seriously.

What does all this mean for the future of Windows? Probably not much right now, given Linux's perpetual state of confusion and Microsoft's monster market share. But this little episode does raise one question. Is Dell's IdeaStorm experience just an incredibly successful hijacking by a determined band of Linux lovers, or is it a real sign that a significant number of PC users want to turn away from Windows? We're guessing a lot of the former and a little of the latter. And we're not predicting a mass exodus of users -- especially business users -- to Linux anytime soon.

But for Microsoft and its partners, the need to understand what's driving people to Linux (and who is along for the ride) becomes more pressing all the time. That's no secret to Redmond, of course, as recent events show -- but what we'll be waiting to see what further steps the company takes to combat its scattered but increasingly popular rival and just how big of a thorn in Microsoft's side Linux will really turn out to be.

Would you like to see more PCs pre-installed with something other than Windows ... or nothing at all? Do you think Dell's experience represents a genuine cry for Linux or a tempest in a teapot? Tell me at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 03/01/2007 at 1:20 PM


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