June 21, 2002

Why Linux-loaded laptops have sold poorly

- By Robin "Roblimo' Miller -
Dell tried to sell laptops with Linux pre-installed for a while, then quit the effort, citing "poor customer demand" as the reason. IBM has now stopped offering Linux support for Thinkpads. The reason these companies have failed so miserably to sell Linux-running laptops is that they haven't sold what Linux users want. A smart laptop distributor or manufacturer that took some time to understand "Linux consumers" could find a fertile laptop market among us.
People who run Linux are cheap

I don't know about you, but I first started using Linux and Free Software to save money. I am cheap. I have always been cheap, so cheap that I used to write a weekly column called Cheap Computing.

When I went looking for a Linux laptop a couple of years ago, I hit the usual major brand manufacturers, and found Linux only on their top-of-the-line models, while what I wanted was a bottom-of-the-line model. I shopped Dell, I shopped IBM, I shopped others. I looked at "specialty" retailers that put Linux on laptops and rebranded them, but in the end I saved money by getting a laptop with Windows on it and loading Linux myself.

If Dell or IBM -- or someone else -- had been willing to sell me a low-cost laptop with Linux already on it, they would have had a sure sale. I had my credit card out, with plenty of available balance on it, ready to spring $1,500 but not $3,000. Too bad these biggies didn't want my money or my loyalty. Maybe someday they will, and maybe someone else will come along who doesn't sneer at my money-saving nature and wants to do business with me.

Why Microtel and Wal-Mart are getting a lot of favorable press

A lot of people don't like Wal-Mart. They say the company ruins small town downtowns and drives "mom and pop" retailers out of business. This may be so, but Wal-Mart's "Always Low Prices" boast is certainly true, and its partnership with Microtel to sell Linux-loaded desktops for as low as $299 certainly fits in with both Wal-Mart's low-price selling philosophy and most Linux users' low-price buying philosophy. We hear these machines are selling well, and that Microtel sees a lower return rate on Linux-loaded desktops than on ones sold with Windows on them. This is good. I have seen and tapped the (metal) case side of one of these low-cost computers, and it seems as solid as most sub-$1,000 boxes (and a lot more solid than the bottom-of-the-line eMachines box I bought once and later regretted).

We're talking "just the basics" here; a small hard drive and no floppy drive, but that's just fine for a whole lot of folks. It's really enough for me, to tell you the truth. I haven't used a floppy disk for months, and all my data files added together don't add up to half a Gigabyte. If I needed a desktop computer, one of these beasts with Linux and OpenOffice on it would suit me fine. I might spring $399 for the next model up from the bottom one, and maybe not. Either one has a fast enough microprocessor and enough RAM to do everything I do with a computer.

I suspect that most home computer users, other than rabid gamers, will find that these little Microtel PCs, especially when they start coming with Mandrake, will be perfectly adequate, and that Microtel's biggest problem is going to be keeping up with the demand.

Laptops are where the action is

Desktop PC sales have not been going well over the last few years, while laptop sales have not suffered the same malaise. My household is now 100% laptop, and 100% wireless. We do not have a desktop in the place. We have redefined the concept of "home office" to include the living room, bedroom, dining room, back yard, front porch, even (now and then) the bathroom. We have smaller screens but we sit closer to them than we did to our big monitors, back when we had big monitors.

Our most recent brand-new laptop (which came preloaded with Windows XP) cost less than $1,000, which is about twice as much as a desktop/monitor combination with similar specs. Not everyone can or will pay this premium, but it seems that a growing percentage of home and small office computer users find the extra money for a laptop worthwhile because of the convenience you get and the amount of space you save.

In my case, with diabetes-ruined eyes, an LCD is mandatory if I am going to stare at a screen for many hours every day, as I must if I want to continue earning my living as a writer and editor. CRTs give me headaches if I use them for more than a few hours. Because LCD monitors cost much more than CRT monitors -- a decent one costs more than an entire Microtel-from-Walmart.com computer -- the price difference for me between a desktop computer and a laptop is not great anyway, so laptop it is.

Other people have other reasons for choosing laptops, but I notice that almost everyone I know (mostly geeks, I'll admit) now owns a laptop and uses it as his or her "primary" computer for everything except gaming or majorly CPU-intense work like compiling or graphics production, and even that gap is starting to close. The laptop is becoming the day-to-day configuration of choice for a growing number of home and small office computer users, and that's that.

Reconditioned Thinkpads with Linux and Windows, $799

Lycoris sells reconditioned IBM Thinkpad laptops that dual boot Lycoris's Desktop/LX Amethyst and Windows® 98 for $799. These are rather poky machines, with 366 MHz Pentium II uPs. The warranty is only 30 days. This is not a great deal in a world where brand-new laptops with over twice the uP speed and one-year warranties sell for for only a few hundred dollars more. I like Lycoris's Linux distribution, but I am not sure I like it enough to pay that much for a refurbished laptop that has it preloaded. I would just as soon find a low-end new laptop that will run Linux competently, except perhaps for the inevitable Winmodem, buy a copy of Lycoris Desktop/LX Amethyst for $29, and do my own install. Lycoris has made the install so easy that you can do it, dead drunk, while watching Judge Judy, without any brain strain.

You can hunt around small dealers and resellers and find Laptops with Linux preloaded in the $1,500 to $2,000 range here and there, but these are not great deals. You might just as well check linux-laptop.net and see what experiences others have had with what models, and use that as a guide to your laptop purchase, along with who's giving out the best deal the week you are in the mood (and have the money) to buy.

This is a sad state of affairs. Someone needs to do something about it.

Who wants to offer a good deal on Linux laptops?

Maybe Microtel will decide to offer Linux laptops through Walmart.com. Maybe someone else will do it somewhere else. Someone certainly should start selling low-cost laptops with Linux pre-installed and do it in a big way. I know that if a company with any muscle to it started selling Linux laptops at any kind of decent price, I'd want to review one, and that there would be a better than even chance I'd end up buying the review unit so I could keep it, if it was halfway decent.

I suspect that a company that did this -- without forgetting the "low price" part of the deal -- would find a nice, steady, growing little niche market, one where they wouldn't find themselves competing with HP/Compaq, IBM, Gateway, Dell, and other giants of the industry.

Ah, well. I wish for a lot of things I don't get. But this shouldn't keep me from wishing, should it?

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