December 16, 2003

$799 now 'the' price point for Linux laptops

Author: JT Smith

You've been able to buy a $799 Lindows laptop for more than a few months, but now another company has jumped into the sub-$800 Linux laptop marketplace: Element Computer of Staten Island, New York, has started to sell $799 laptops preloaded with Lycoris. And Element's Mike Hjorleifsson says that if you prefer a different Linux distribution, their Mercury 700m laptop ought to have no problem running it, even though they only offer support for Lycoris at this time.

Linux has traditionally been hard to install on laptops, what with the seemingly endless series of proprietary -- and often rather odd -- variations in video and sound circuitry and other doodads their manufacturers delight in offering.

Over and over, we've heard that the only real way Linux will ever be able to compete with Windows in the consumer computer marketplace is if it comes preinstalled, since most people never install an operating system themselves but use whatever their computer came with when they bought it. Since Linux laptop installations seem to be inherently more troublesome than desktop installs, this is at least twice as true for portable computers, so the more of them we see that come preloaded with Linux, the better.

Element has already gained a certain measure of fame in Linux circles for introducing a $999 Linux tablet PC. In fact, news of that announcement got posted on Slashdot and produced so many visitors to Element's site -- Mike says they were getting over 10,000 hits per minute for a while after the story hit the wires -- that Element's site collapsed under the load.

Element is not following Dell's Linux laptop pattern. Dell made a half-hearted attempt to sell Linux laptops at one point, then pulled back after claiming there was no market for Linux laptops. There was surely no market for Dell's Linux laptops, which were the company's most expensive model, and were sold only with Dell's most expensive add-on warranty added to the already hefty price. I often got the feeling that Dell's attempt to sell a Linux laptop was a token effort that was supposed to fail from day one. It might have gone somewhat differently if Dell had sold low-cost Inspirons with Linux preloaded.

But Dell's business is Dell's business. If they choose not to sell Linux on laptops, we can buy them elsewhere -- and perhaps choose to buy our Linux servers from companies that provide us with the machines we use to admin those servers from remote locations, too, instead of from one that thinks we are supposed to be happy that they deign to give us Linux on servers at all.

Indeed, when Element started in 2002, the company -- then known as Desktop Evolution -- focused on server, thin client, and enterprise-targeted embedded solutions. Now, under the Element Computer brand, they are busily tapping into a Linux market that is hungry for product. Even though the initial blush of publicity for the $999 tablet PC product has died down, Mike describes sales as "brisk," and assures me that both the $999 tablet and the $799 laptop are being sold at a profit, to the point where the company, which now has 10 employees, is totally, 100% profitable.

Yes, there's money in Linux hardware

Microtel, the company that sells low-cost Linux PCs through Walmart.com, has also assured us that sales are strong -- and that they make money selling low-cost, Linux-loaded hardware.

Indeed, Microtel's success selling $199 PCs running Lindows is a big reason Element stayed away from the desktop market and, Mike says, decided to concentrate on the less-crowded (and less commodity-like) laptop and tablet markets.

He says the reason they specifically hooked up with Lycoris was that, after trying Mandrake Red Hat Debian, and SUSE, they decided "Lycoris was easier for non-technical users than the others."

Besides computers, Element sells a limited selection of low-cost digital cameras and printers that work with its Linux tablets and laptops. It is possible to assemble a complete system from Element, including a laptop, printer, and camera, for under $1000, including all essential software.

I said earlier that these people claim to be making money doing this. And others seem to be jumping onto the low-cost Linux computing bandwagon as well, so obviously more than a few entrepreneurs seem to feel Linux is a viable desktop -- and laptop -- operating system.

Lindows now has a long enough list of affiliated hardware manufacturers that preload its software that you'd need a mighty big monitor to see all their names without scrolling.

Lycoris, too, has been actively working to get OEMs to choose its software.

Years ago, we used to complain that major computer manufacturers refused to sell Linux desktops and laptops. Now there are enough smaller hardware vendors selling Linux preloads that it doesn't really matter whether the biggies jump into this game, any more than it mattered in the long run that former industry leader Kaypro stuck to CP/M until it was too late for them to get any traction with the (then) new PC-DOS operating system.

Sun Microsytems and other traditional Unix vendors have learned that they have a simple choice when it comes to Linux: Adopt it or die. Most server hardware manufacturers seem to have come to the same realization. And, before long, consumer computer manufacturers will have the same flash of insight.

At least some of them will. The ones who don't will risk joining Kaypro, Osborne, Altair, and the Addometer in computer museum displays, otherwise forgotten (and unmissed) by almost everyone in the world except their former employees and shareholders.

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