April 3, 2003

Who's your favorite Linux hardware vendor?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
The traditional answer to this question is, "I assemble my own workstations and servers," because early Linux adoptors tended to be tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers. But times are changing, and an increasing number of both large and small computer vendors have learned that Linux is no longer an "upstart" operating system, but a serious market force. Do you have a favorite Linux hardware vendor? If so, we'd like to meet (and possibly write about) them.

The search for competent Linux hardware vendors is not new. Way back in the mid-90s, before I started writing for AndoverNews.com (NewsForge's progenitor), consumer activist Jamie Love and I had a series of spirited email list discussions about how to get more hardware vendors to offer Linux as an alternative to Windows.

I can't call those discussion a "flame war" because Jamie and I are good friends, and I have great respect for the work he does as head of the Ralph Nader-founded Consumer Project on Technology.

Jamie and I share many goals. We only differ on tactics. Back then, he was trying to force big hardware companies like Dell, IBM, and Gateway to offer Linux -- and other operating systems -- in addition to Microsoft Windows as a way to stop Microsoft's domination of the world's computer desktops. I, on the other hand, didn't care much if Dell and other biggies wanted to tie their future to Microsoft, and advocated a free market approach: Seeking out and patronizing smaller computer vendors who were willing to serve their customers instead of bowing blindly to Redmond's demands.

I found plenty of Linux-friendly hardware makers, too, including then-tiny VA Research, which later morphed into VA Linux, did an IPO, bought Andover.net and turned it into OSDN, and later became VA Software, which still owns NewsForge.

Even though VA is no longer in the hardware business, plenty of others stuck with it, and plenty of new Linux-oriented companies have sprung up since I first started looking for Linux hardware vendors.

Since 1997, I have bought desktop hardware only from Linux-friendly vendors, usually small "white box" shops. I believe I have gotten equipment that is at least as reliable as what major vendors would have sold me, usually for slightly less money, and I have always gotten tech support and service from these small vendors that is head and shoulders above what big companies provide through their outsourced "customer service" departments and their "tier one" people who seem to only read from scripts that tell you to reboot, reinstall Windows if that doesn't work, and send the unit back for repair if it still acts up.

I strongly prefer dealing with a local company that can say, "Bring it in, let's see what's wrong, and get it working for you right away." Once you get used to this level of service, no national or multinational company can successfully compete for your business, even if their price is slightly lower than you might pay a local vendor -- which it usually isn't anyway for units of similar quality, assuming your local vendor is half-decent in the first place.

When it comes to laptops, we are still stuck with proprietary, Windows-oriented, complete units almost every time. Even if we buy laptops from Linux-oriented vendors, we're usually getting rebranded "stock" machines with modems and other accessories that don't necessarily work with Linux.

We will probably see locally-assembled modular laptops before long, but we are not "there" yet, at least in the U.S. But if the number of Linux users -- especially the number of Linux laptop users -- continues to grow at its current rate, at least one or two of the major Taiwanese or Korean laptop assemblers will start making (and advertising) fully Linux-compatible laptops. It's only a matter of time...

Meanwhile, the future is the future, and today is today. Where can we buy Linux-compatible or Linux preloaded computers right now? Servers... well, almost every hardware manufacturer worth its salt now sells Linux servers. That's not an issue. But what about desktops and laptops? Who have you bought from? Who has served you well, and who has served you poorly?

At some point, we'd like to put together a list of Linux-friendly hardware vendors. It will no doubt be a constantly-changing list. Or perhaps you know of such a list, published elsewhere, that is kept up-to-date well enough to be useful. We'll happily link to that list.

The floor is open...


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