September 27, 2002

What this country needs is a good $999 Linux laptop

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

In 1917 U.S. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall famously said, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar." Nobody remembers Marshall for anything besides this humorous comment. Maybe nobody will remember me for saying anything besides, "What this country needs is a good $999 Linux laptop," but if we get good $999 Linux laptops that'll be legacy enough for me.

("This country" can be any country, of course. I happen to live in one north of Mexico and south of Canada where many millions of laptop computers are sold every year, almost every single one of them with a proprietary operating system preloaded, so I will concentrate this rant on my country's laptop problem, and you can chime in below with notes about yours.)

Desktop computers are on their way out

Look around you. Almost everyone you know who can afford a laptop computer has one, and those who don't have laptops already are saving to buy them. It's not just your friends, either. Worldwide desktop computer sales are flat or dropping, but laptop sales are rising. Laptops are slowly replacing desktops for home and office computer users who don't need huge screens, massive processing power or specialized add-in cards.

Wireless home and small office networks are becoming a big deal because of increased laptop use, not because people are wheeling cumbersome desktop computers on carts into their yards when they feel like working outdoors. My wife and I may be an extreme case, but our "home office" is now nothing but a printer, cable modem and wireless access point in a cabinet under our living room TV. We work all over the house and yard, depending on mood. We can even print through our wireless network, but we rarely print these days; we are not yet paperless but rapidly moving in that direction. I do not know if we represent some sort of ideal work-at-home future, but we are certainly far from alone in our work/home lifestyle.

Now think about a person who works in an office most of the time but needs to take work home. It is simply more convenient to carry a laptop that has all the necessary local files and software on it back and forth than it is to use almost any of the software that allows a home computer to connect to a remote business network through the Internet -- especially if the home computer is likely to be a laptop anyway.

Now let's talk money

Feature for feature, laptops cost more than desktops. You can now buy a desktop computer with pre-installed Linux for about $400 (WalMart.com low-end PC with Mandrake or a Lindows one for $299 plus a $99 Click-N-Run subscription to get the same software included with Mandrake). Add a $119 monitor and you're in business. You've spent a little over $500, plus shipping charges for some hefty boxes.

The lowest cost (Microtel) laptop computer from WalMart.com costs $1,089. I often see laptops at major retailers for $999 or less. I have whined before about how Dell and other major laptop vendors missed the Linux boat by only offering their most expensive laptops with Linux as an option, so I will not repeat that train of thought here.

Linux users are often cheap -- or, to put it more kindly, "working with limited budgets." Some love software freedom above everything else, but I suspect even more are drawn to Linux by the idea of getting most of their software beer-free or at flea market prices. I've noticed this same level of cost-consciousness in Linux users when it comes to hardware purchases, too. I know hardly any Linux users who buy premade, top-of-the-line desktop boxes, and most of the laptops I see my Linux friends buying are mid-range or low-end units.

I doubt that a Linux laptop that runs much more than $1,200 is going to sell a noticeable number of units. And "under $1,000" seems to be the magic laptop price point now, so $999 (or less) is the tag you want to see on the Linux laptop at the end of the aisle in your local computer chain store.

Waiting for a hungry -- but smart -- computer vendor

The computer hardware marketplace is rough right now. Prices and sales are down, and 90% of the units on sale look much like the other 90%. Only Apple makes anything notably different from what the rest of the horde is pushing, and Apple seems to be hurting less from the current IT recession than almost any other end-user hardware manufacturer.

Sooner or later, management at a consumer-level computer company other than Dell or HPQ is going to be forced to think up a marketing strategy that is truly different from the one used by that pair of giants, both of whom yell "Linux" loudly and often on the commercial server level, but barely whisper the word when it comes to desktops and laptops. And that company's management will hook up with Red Hat or Mandrake or one of the other commercial "power brands" in Linux desktop operating systems, and will make a big deal out of "end-to-end Linux support" for both corporate and home use.

Naturally, this is going to be a desperation move as Dell and HPQ fight to kill all competition in the consumer computer marketplace, including each other, but does this matter? As Mongo Babyheart says, "We should not question the motives of those who do Good, but praise them for doing it."

When will this happen?

Got me. My crystal ball is a little cloudy today. But I think it's near certain that it will happen sooner or later. I don't know if the company that decides to abandon the Wintel path in favor of Linux will make a go of it, either, but if they were going to get squeezed out by Dell and HPQ anyway, they'll be no worse off if they fail than if they don't try.

And maybe, if this comes to pass, some of us will get our hands on some nice $999 laptops that come with Linux pre-installed.

Wouldn't that be nice!

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