May 1, 2007

Dude, you're getting Ubuntu

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Dell and Canonical are finally making it official. Dell is scheduled to announce today that it has reached a partnership with Canonical to sell Dell desktops and laptops with Ubuntu preinstalled, to be sold through the Dell Web site. The move follows a deluge of requests for preinstalled Linux desktops on Dell's IdeaStorm site in February.

Jane Silber, director of operations for Canonical, says Canonical will be working to certify certain models of Dell computers to ensure that they work with Ubuntu. The two companies are not announcing what models will ship with Ubuntu at this time, but Nick Selby, senior analyst with The 451 Group, says that there will be one notebook and three desktop systems.

Dell spokesman Jeremy Bolen says that it's too early to talk about price points and which models will carry Ubuntu, but that it will be "the kind of offerings that address a cross-section of users."

"Right now we're saying 'in the coming weeks.' This is another positive step -- now we have the distribution, we just have to work out the final details around the product."

While pricing isn't finalized, Bolen did say that the Ubuntu offerings should "come in below a typical Windows machine" with the same configuration.

Silber was mum about the details of Canonical's deal with Dell, and whether Dell was paying any sort of OEM fee or support fees to Canonical for its certification work with Dell. However, Silber did say that Dell would be giving customers the opportunity to buy support for Ubuntu from Canonical through its Web site when they bought a machine with Ubuntu.

According to Silber, Dell will be shipping machines with Ubuntu 7.04, or Feisty Fawn, and she doesn't expect the version shipped by Dell to differ from the download version of Feisty. "It's the same Ubuntu you get from downloading it. The advantage is the preinstall option -- you're not buying software you don't actually want."

One wonders whether the disappointing sales of Vista have anything to do with the timing of the announcement. Bolen says that the announcement has nothing to do with Vista, but "an overwhelming customer feedback" in favor of Linux on the desktop via IdeaStorm.

Analyst Selby says, "I don't think Vista's lack of shine is helping, but I'd be surprised if it's a prime driver."

Why Ubuntu, rather than an offering from Red Hat or Novell, companies that already have pre-existing relationships with Dell? Selby says that it's "an admission by Dell that Red Hat and SUSE 10.2 are not ready for prime time as desktop OSes, and not able to deliver the kind of experience Ubuntu is."

"People are starting to get used to not having the Microsoftian Web experience.... People might just be ready to say this OS [Vista] is junk."

Ubuntu has done extremely well with the Linux enthusiast crowd, but how well will it fare with mainstream users who are not well-versed with Linux, and who may not have sought out Linux before hearing about it via Dell's Web site? Selby says that there's the chance "Canonical might walk into something it's never experienced before, which is consumer dissatisfaction."

Is the average consumer ready for Linux? Selby says that many users wouldn't notice the difference if you sat them down at an Ubuntu machine, but cautions that printing and multimedia are two potential stumbling blocks. He adds that Ubuntu has addressed those problems somewhat in Feisty, but that they are the key areas where he sees Ubuntu as weak with consumers. But he also says that "people are ready to listen" to anyone with something to say about alternatives to Windows.

Selby says that this will be a test of Canonical's ability to scale its support model, and that it might strain a young company that hasn't yet had to deal with a large influx of consumer support requests.

This isn't Dell's first foray into selling desktop Linux systems. Dell gave Linux a shot on its desktop and notebook machines in the 2000-2001 timeframe with Red Hat, but stopped selling the machines after citing low demand.


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