July 7, 2004

Commentary: Will Dell's new Linux desktops start a gray-market trend?

Author: Chris Preimesberger

Sorry, but Linux will never be completely accepted by the consuming public in the United States until one can walk into a mainstream store such as Best Buy, Fry's, or Circuit City and buy such a computer off the shelf -- or on the Web -- from a name-brand maker.

There are lots of reasons why this is taking so long. Microsoft, of course, is the main barrier, since it ostensibly -- though unofficially -- doesn't allow any of its U.S. computer hardware OEM partners to diminish its Windows franchise by implanting the feared Linux system on their desktop offerings. If the OEMs do ignore the back-room Microsoft "directive," they risk losing that tempting flow of MS-generated dollars into their corporate accounts.

Few options for U.S. Linux buyers

In recent months, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. have made installed Linux desktop machines available for sale in the Far East, but not in the States. We couldn't find any first-tier computer manufacturers offering Linux-loaded desktop computers in the U.S. Thus, the only options U.S. buyers currently have are small, unknown manufacturers (i.e. Microtel) that have little or no market history with the buying public.

Certainly, one can obtain a Linux distribution and install it on virtually any computer. But that's not what we're discussing here.

There was a small but important breakthrough on the consumer desktop front Monday. OK, it happened in Italy, but at least it happened -- and it involves a major international retailer.

As of now, one can buy a Dell desktop with pre-installed Linux through its Italian channel partner Questar. The particular model is a Dell Optiplex 170L mini-tower system running the Linspire 4.5 distribution and bundled with three years of Dell's Gold tech support plus one free year of Linspire's CNR software catalog.

You can't order it through Dell's regular U.S. Web site or through any of Dell's U.S. retail channels. But you can still order it. It may take a little longer to get it delivered, and you may have a few extra fees to pay, but you can get one. Dell is handling distribution to anywhere in the world from its plant in Ireland, Linspire spokeswoman Ellie Sanchez told NewsForge.

Dell is making two packages available: one with only the computer box, the other with a 15-inch LCD monitor. Both use a single Optiplex configuration equipped with a 2.4GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 256MB of 333MHz DDR SDRAM, integrated Intel Extreme graphics, a 40GB hard drive, 48x CD-ROM unit, and a 10/100Mbps Ethernet card. They are pre-installed with OpenOffice, and one can choose either English or Italian language installations. Without the monitor, it costs â¬469 (£315/$576); â¬749 (£503/$920) with the LCD panel.

Linspire's Robertson: 'A notable event'

"I believe that it's a notable event when the largest OEM in the world agrees to ship a new desktop Linux product," Linspire CEO Michael Robertson wrote Monday in his blog. "Dell has a solid reputation for quality ... Linux has its roots in Europe, and many countries have been public about their desire to embrace Linux on the desktop. Being able to order an affordable Dell computer can only help."

So what does this mean to the general market?

It could mean plenty. People who use either English or Italian as a first language and aren't particularly tech-minded now have an opportunity to finally break the Windows headlock, if they so choose. These folks -- and there are many -- won't have to deal with partitioning their disks to install the system. They won't have to worry about selecting drivers -- if they know what drivers are. They won't have to go through a tedious installation process. In fact, they won't have to worry about installing a new system, period.

That's always been the No. 1 fear for non-tech users about breaking away from Windows: They're not confident enough to reconfigure systems themselves, and many middle-class folks -- having already spent a substantial sum on the initial hardware and software investment -- don't want to spend the money to pay someone else to do it.

Secondly, since most people are followers, the vast majority of consumers simply didn't want to rock the proverbial boat. It's always been easier to go with Windows. Windows is like an old shoe, well-worn and with holes, but serviceable. The learning curve is small. So the buyer ultimately opts for the status quo, despite all the well-known security red flags and legion other inherent problems. Microsoft, the Great Default, maintains its 93 percent desktop market share. And round and round we go.

Setup is a no-brainer, as it should be

But with the new Dell desktop, the setup is a no-brainer, and that's the way the public wants it.

Perhaps now we'll start seeing more boats rocking. And when those boats start multiplying, and other mainstream manufacturers make Linux as simple as Windows to buy and set up out of the box, the picture will change. Linux out of the box is here. The question is: How long will it take for the sales momentum to get started?

If Dell and Linspire are as smart as they appear to be, they're getting the German, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Japanese, etc. language versions of this PC ready for prime time as soon as possible. They're way ahead of the curve, and they can be the leaders in this new wave if they want.


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