June 25, 2008

Linux laptop retailers fearlessly face name-brand competition

Author: Kyle Mayhugh

Linux Certified sells Linux laptops and offers IT training to individuals and organizations. Its product line ranges from small, affordable units to performance laptops that cost well over $2,000. The company's customer list boasts the likes of Boeing, NASA, the US Army and MIT. But if recent trends are any indication, Linux Certified and similar companies that specialize in selling computers that run Linux are about to see some of the world's largest computer companies warm up to the open source operating system. Major manufacturers have begun to take notice of Linux's potential on the laptop.

Asus announced earlier this month that sales of its primarily Linux-running Eee PC line of small, simple laptops have surpassed one million units since the product line was launched in October. Not to be left behind, an executive with Acer, the world's third-largest computer manufacturer, announced earlier this month that it sees the open source OS as a major player in the development of small, low-cost laptops. The company will soon launch its Aspire One.

The market they enter isn't empty. Linux and laptops have always seemed a natural fit, thanks to the operating system's relatively low demand on hardware resources. A number of companies already specialize in the sale of computers running Linux, and they aren't ready to cede the niche they've carved for themselves.

Linux-specialized computer companies believe they are nimbler, more adaptable, and more user-focused than their potential rivals. Ranging from major players to small operations that measure yearly sales in the dozens, these companies are confident their versatility prepares them for the challenges rising mainstream interest in Linux might bring to their business.

"[Larger companies selling Linux laptops] further proves the importance of Linux laptops and creates new market demand for us," says Rajesh Goyal, vice president of marketing and operations for Linux Certified. Linux Certified has "thousands of systems" in the field and Goyal says the company can offer "much more flexibility" than larger companies.

"We not only support enterprise distributions such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we also support community distributions such as Fedora and Ubuntu," Goyal says. "We also offer a dual-boot option with users' choice of Windows operating system as one of the boot option."

Flexibility has always been one of open source software's most attractive attributes. "A GNU/Linux OEM is only as valuable as the depth it provides to consumers and small and large companies," says Carl Richell, co-founder and president of System76, a company that specializes in Ubuntu Linux computers. "Many business customers start with System76 Ubuntu laptops or desktops and then progress towards System76 servers."

Richell said System76 has been profitable since two months after its founding in November 2005, and now "our customers count well into the thousands with millions in revenue each year." Despite their success, they've taken notice of the possible competition.

"Open source has reached and by numerous measures surpassed a competitive and technological equilibrium," Richell says. "Large companies will recognize that and act. From our perspective this is reactionary, as we've lived the trend for almost three years."

Erik Soroka of the Linux Laptop Company has been a Linux user for 15 years. He founded his company because he believes there's room in the market for someone to cater to customers who want more long-term involvement with a company. Soroka said his company sells five to 10 laptops per month.

"We put a personal touch on every laptop that we ship," Soroka said. "None of the larger companies can provide that direct one-on-one 'computer shop down the road' kind of feel. Our client respond to the way in which we not only handle their needs and listen to their requirements before the sale, but work with them to get them acclimated to their new Linux environment months after the sale. We don't charge for service contracts or technical support agreements because we too are part of the Linux community."

Soon, that community that might be getting a whole lot bigger.

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