OEMs in this sense are original equipment manufacturers -- vendors of pre-built computer hardware systems -- complete PCs and servers, not to be confused with hardware manufacturers. Often referred to colloquially as "white box" vendors, OEMs include a range of PC makers, from one-man garage PC shops to customization-friendly Web stores to high-volume business suppliers.
Using the OEM installation option, computer resellers can pre-install and verify Ubuntu on machines slated for sale or redistribution, but leave select configuration details, locale and language preferences, and user account creation to the retail purchaser.
The OEM install mode is the brainchild of Ubuntu community developer Jeff Waugh, who picked up on a rise in support requests from OEMs during the previous release cycle. The OEMs' needs weren't being met by the existing installation options.
OEMs and white box vendors face a different set of challenges than the home user. In most cases the purchase of a new desktop or laptop system comes with a warranty, so the OEM must be able to verify all its systems before they leave the shop.
The problem is that typical Linux installs spread out hardware, network, and peripheral detection over multiple steps, intermixing setup decisions the OEM needs to make in advance with choices the OEM wants to leave to the buyer. For instance, keyboard and mouse detection, which the OEM should handle, are usually followed by choosing language and time zone settings, which is the buyer's choice to make. And an OEM typically will not know the network configuration under which the machine will run, though they will need to verify the networking hardware they supply.
Furthermore, OEMs may want to choose a customized set of default packages to install -- including commercial applications unavailable to free (in both senses) distributions like Ubuntu -- or tailor their configurations to suit the their target customers. Last but not least, OEMs may want to customize the look and feel of their systems, including wallpapers, splash screens, menu organization, and even default browser bookmarks.
The task of creating Ubuntu 5.10's OEM mode installer fell to Colin Watson, lead programmer of the Ubuntu installer team. He decided early on in the discussion that the best option was to expand the functionality of the existing desktop installer code instead of writing something from scratch, thus providing not only an OEM solution, but a flexible installer that can handle additional install modes in the future.
Watson says that bug reports have started to come in from OEMs, though as yet none have notified Ubuntu of a real-world deployment. However, with new markets opening up in countries like China and the advent of extremely low-cost PCs and portables for the Third World, the OEM Linux market may be just beginning.