December 10, 2001

Wanna buy a Linux desktop PC? Better try an independent OEM

Author: JT Smith

- By Daniel P. Dern -

If you've recently tried buying a desktop PC with a non-Windows operating
system, such as Linux, pre-installed as the sole boot OS or as a boot option
(along with Windows XP, Windows 2K, etc.), you know it's gotten harder -- if you want to buy from one of the larger vendors or retailers.
(See The Register's
Dell begs for mercy after ditching desktop Linux for recent coverage of
Linux retrenchment.)

I called several bigger (a.k.a. "Tier 1") vendors -- Compaq, Dell, and
IBM -- as well as two major retailers --
Micro Center and
PC Connection, shortly after
Thanksgiving. Despite what some of their Web pages claimed at the time, no joy -- the sales people reported no choice of pre-installed bootable Linux (or BSD), nor any other Windows-free or zero-OS options, for either desktop or notebook PCs. On more expensive workstations and servers, Linux was an option. (At least one NewsForge reader reports he was able to
reject the End User License Agreement and get a refund from Dell
for the bundled copy of Windows on his system.)

Fortunately, you still can get your choice of pre-installed bootable
non-Microsoft OSes, with or without a version of Windows, by going to an independent computer OEM (a company that's building its house-brand
systems from motherboard, CPU, case, power supply, etc., installing
software and making sure everything works -- something you could do at
home, given patience and a few tools, which many do.)

Or you could go to PCs For Everyone, an independent computer OEM in Cambridge, Mass., conveniently near MIT and many high-tech companies. PCs For Everyone has been offering Linux -- currently, the Red Hat and SuSE distributions -- as a sole or multi-boot option on its desktop and server systems for several years. ASA Computers Inc.,
also offers a choice of BSD or Solaris, even for low-end desktop systems,
according to the sales rep I talked with -- although the "configurator"
on ASA Computers' Web site doesn't reflect this. If you want a
Linux-only system, you also can go to Penguin Computing,
which only sells systems running Red Hat Linux -- no Microsoft OSes offered.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new dual-boot Athlon-based
desktop PC from PCs For Everyone, with both Windows 2000 Pro and Red Hat
Linux pre-installed. Linux was the default when the "which OS" boot menu came up.

W2K Pro cost me $169, but I got the full regular store-version CD-ROM.
Red Hat 7.2 ran me $89, which included installation and the boxed version.
I could have gone for the $29 Web download of Red Hat with CD but
no support or documentation. The dual-boot set-up cost an additional $49, FYI.

There was no obligation to buy any Microsoft OS -- I could even have
bought the system with no OS. However, PCs For Everyone charges a
$29 testing fee for "no OS" systems, and you forfeit any OS tech support
from the store this way; for the same price, it makes more sense to buy the cheaper Red Hat install, and that's what they recommend.
But if you want a no-OS box, they'll sell you one.

PCs For Everyone doesn't sell a
notebook computer
with Linux pre-installed, but its Web site offers the option "Downgrade
to no operating system software" and reduces the price by $75 -- shades of

Windows Refund Day
.

Successfully selling not just Microsoft

Founded in 1991, PCs For Everyone currently has about 60 employees, and
is still hiring, according to founder and COO Peter Goodman.

The store sells locally and nationally, to everyone from individual
home users through corporate customers with large multi-system orders.
Corporate customers include MIT's Media Lab and Lincoln
Laboratories, Boston University, Harvard, and other universities and colleges,
along with companies such as Mercury Computer, Massachusetts General Hospital, and
Raytheon.

On a typical evening or weekend, the store is, well, full of geeks of all
ages. PC sales, according to Goodman, are roughly half to individuals and
half to companies; buyers of systems with Linux pre-installed include a
lot of new-to-Linux folks, and companies starting to use Linux, says Goodman.

PCs For Everyone also offers a
range of choices on all hardware components, from motherboards and CPUs -- they offer Intel and AMD CPUs, and more than half their current systems are Athlon based -- to cases and cooling fans. The system configuration pages at the Web site include both the company's own opinions and recommendations as well as links to reviews on Tom's Hardware,
Anandtech and others.

When asked if the recent Microsoft settlement has had any impact on PCs
For Everyone, Goodman says, "It hasn't affected us whatsoever, especially since Massachusetts hasn't agreed to settle. And I don't see the state prohibiting the sale of the Windows ..."

In tight with Microsoft

In any case, PCs For Everyone already has an unusually strong relationship
with Microsoft for an independent OEM. "We're a Microsoft Gold Level Dealer," says Goodman. "We participate in the Delivery Service Program, which is how independent OEMs like us purchase licenses, etc." To maintain their Gold level status means buying 1,000 Microsoft OS licenses per quarter.

According to PC4E's
Web site
, "40,000 companies ... are members of the Microsoft System
Builder Program and only 160 have attained gold-level status. And of the
160 members that have attained Gold level status, only about 25 actually
sell directly to the public, (the rest are distributors that only sell to resellers)."

Being a Gold level dealer "qualifies us for things like better tech support
opportunities, better training for our techs, advance copies to try out,
and occasionally small rebate opportunities which can be turned into savings
to the customer," Goodman says. "Mostly it means we're committed to selling legitimate licenses."

It also means PCs For Everyone customers get better pricing on Microsoft
OSes than if they bought retail: Windows XP/Home for $109, versus
store price of $199.

On the other hand, even companies like PCs For Everyone don't get the
biggest discounts on Windows OSes and other Microsoft products, which
in turn means that customers must pay more. However, PCs For Everyone remains free to sell computers with or without a Microsoft OS, even with no OS.

BeOS enthusiast Scot Hacker, in his

final Byte.com column
, claimed the scarcity of multi-boot offerings
was due to the "bootloader" agreement that
Microsoft has with these big OEMs as part of the quid pro quo for the deepest-discount prices -- which also played a big part in keeping BeOS from being more readily available, and probably played a large role in BeOS's demise as an end-user OS.

PCs For Everyone has been offering systems pre-installed with Linux for about three years now, Goodman says, including a lot of multi-boot systems. "It's becoming
an increasingly large portion of our business. It's still smaller than our Windows desktop and server sales."

Is Linux harder to sell and support? "I don't think so," says Goodman.
"Most of the customers who buy [Linux systems] are capable of using it,
and Red Hat and SuSE keep getting more user friendly.

"Our Web site indicates what works with Linux and what doesn't in terms
of hardware compatibility," he says. With the newer releases such as
Red Hat 7.2 and SuSE 7.3, "almost our entire product line is
Linux-compatible. Not always," he admits, "for example, some RAID
controller won't work at their highest speeds under some of the Linux
versions. But that's a big change from six months ago -- the 7.0 releases,
where almost nothing was working. Video cards were the worst. Now almost everything works under Linux, and that helps a lot."

"We sell a lot of systems only with Linux, or also with no OS at all."

Does PCs For Everyone get any pressure from Microsoft?
"No. They like us, they know we move a lot of licenses, as well as
selling lots of Linux."

In his opinion, should the major OEMs pull back from selling Linux
(which, at least at the desktop and notebook level, it looks more
and more like the trend)? "It's good and bad. More people will need companies
like us, but we want to see the major vendors support Linux, which
lends more credibility and opens up the marketplace."

Does Open Source offer any advantage to PCs For Everyone?

"Yes. We don't like to have to do tweaks, but it does
come up. It's a time-consuming process if we have to start
editing the drivers.

"Supporting Linux distros in a PC these days isn't difficult, and we
seem to have tapped into a steady stream of people who want Linux,
with or without Windows alongside it, on their desktop," Goodman
says.

So, if you're planning to buy a PC with Linux pre-installed as
one of several bootable OS, or as the only bootable OS, the good news is you've still got choices, just as with CPUs, browsers, and operating systems. And even if you decide to get a Windows-only box, consider supporting the places that
offer customers a choice.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer. Most recently he was executive editor of Byte.com. His Web site
is www.dern.com.

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