July 25, 2006

Mark of the Microsoft Beast

Author: Joe Barr

If you've looked for a Linux laptop lately on any of the major OEM Web sites, you've seen it: the mark of the beast. The phrasing goes "Dell|Lenovo|HP|Acer recommends Windows XP Professional." What it means is that by virtue of a Microsoft marketing agreement, the OEM can make more money in the US by not pre-loading Linux than it could if it did. Things are different elsewhere.

I looked for a Dell laptop with Linux preloaded and found this in addition to the mark of the beast: "Dell does not officially support running Linux on Dell laptops. However, there are many great 'community-supported' resources available to help you get Linux running."

The Hewlett-Packard site looked slightly more promising. The NX5000 laptop does offer Linux as an option -- but that doesn't mean a preloaded option. It means you get a copy of SUSE with the laptop and you can install it yourself. The mark of the beast is there, too.

Lenovo embarrassed itself last month, telling the world one day that it would no longer offer Linux laptops, and then correcting itself a couple of days later. The mark of the beast is on its Web site, of course. And the scent is there too, as the erroneous claim of dumping Linux came shortly after Lenovo inked a billion-dollar software deal with Microsoft.

Supposedly, Lenovo will begin pre-installing Novell's SUSE distribution in the third quarter, although I don't understand how or why the customer has to obtain a license for it before Lenovo will pre-load it. This one bears watching.

As noted above, elsewhere in the world, things are different. A recent story in the Hindu Times reports on a pent-up demand for Linux on laptops. All the major players there -- IBM (now Lenovo), Dell, HP, and Acer -- are offering their customers a choice between Linux and Windows. Pre-loading makes a difference.

The story says, "Laptops pre-loaded with Linux operating system are gaining in popularity among Indian customers as well." It bolsters that claim with a quote from Rajiv Grover, HP's country manager for consumer portables, who says "between 20 and 22% of our laptop business came from notebooks loaded with Linux."

So why do consumers have more freedom of choice in India and elsewhere than they do in the United States? My hunch is that we don't really need to look any further than the mark of the beast. It's because in North America, OEMs get paid by Microsoft not to pre-load Linux, so they can make more money by not pre-loading it than they can by doing so.

That allows Microsoft to keep getting richer by keeping a tight lid on its desktop monopoly, and protect itself from Linux on the desktop at the same time. The question "When will Linux be ready for the desktop?" is bogus. It's a red herring. Sales in India are proof of that. A better question is, "When will OEMs be allowed to pre-load Linux here, so consumers can benefit from better software at a lower price?"


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