March 23, 2007

ChangeLog: Run Linux, lose warranty

Author: JT Smith

Laura Breeden bought a new Compaq Presario C304NR notebook in January. She bought it because she wanted to get rid of Windows and all the malware that surrounds it and move to Linux, and her old laptop lacked the memory and power to run Ubuntu Edgy. The salespeople assured her that the C304NR was "Linux ready." But they didn't tell her that running Linux would void her warranty. Update: HP has since clarified their warranty policy.Until recently, she's been happy with it, and with Ubuntu Edgy. But a couple of weeks ago she began having keyboard problems. The keyboard is misbehaving when she begins to type quickly: keys are sticking and the space bar does not always respond when pressed.

When she called Compaq -- the unit comes with a one-year warranty on the hardware -- they asked what operating system she was running. When she told them Linux, they said, "Sorry, we do not honor our hardware warranty when you run Linux." In order to get warranty service, she was told, she would have to remove Linux and reinstall the original OS.

Laura is not a software engineer, but she failed to see how her choice of operating system could damage the keyboard. Furthermore, there isn't a word about the subject on the Compaq C304NR Web page -- nothing to alert consumers to the fact that if they chose a reliable, secure operating system like Linux instead of Windows, they would lose their rights to service under warranty.

She bought the notebook from Best Buy, and they did their best to sell her a maintenance contract ($200 for three years). But since the notebook only cost $549, she thought that was a lot of money to add to the purchase price, and she also thought that she could depend on the Compaq warranty.

I've been tracking this story for a couple of weeks with a PR rep from Hewlett-Packard Customer Service, who has been trying to "do the right thing" by Laura. There has been some discussion of swapping her unit with an HP notebook which is available with Linux preinstalled, but after a couple of weeks of back and forth, nothing has changed.

The PR rep told me, after wading through all the terms and conditions attached to the notebook's warranty, that "it is impossible to anticipate every single issue that a customer can face, so the terms and conditions of warranties can't list every possible scenario. Usually if a customer installs a different OS, it has a big impact on the PC and will void the warranty. However, since the OS couldn't have been responsible for keys sticking on a notebook keyboard, I think this is an exception to the rule." She also asserts that Compaq's "warranty terms and conditions are in line with the rest of the industry."

I have a feeling that she is correct about that. Gateway and Dell have both declined to respond to queries about their own warranty coverage in a similar scenario. Tier one manufacturers like Dell and HP are locked up in double-blind secrecy about their marketing deals with Microsoft, like the ones that keep them from offering preinstalled Linux like their customers are demanding, or even from offering machines without an OS installed at all.

Laura's problem will probably come to a satisfactory end: the return of the merchandise for a full refund, or a swap for a unit that is offered with Linux in the first place. But the bigger problem is that Microsoft's tentacles are still obvious in choking a free marketplace, and the tier one manufacturers are still submissive to and complicit in Microsoft's enterprise.

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