November 6, 2001

Will we finally get PCs with Linux preinstalled?

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
One section of the proposed DoJ vs. Microsoft settlement specifically prohibits retaliation by Microsoft against computer manufacturers that install operating systems other than Windows. This has been noted by, among others, Wired News and Open for Business. Does this mean "brand name" PC makers will finally sell Linux and dual boot Windows/Linux computers to the public? The word is still out on what some of the vaguer parts of that settlement really mean. But let's assume the best for the moment; that under strict federal supervision, Microsoft turns into a semi-fair competitor, at least when it comes to dealing with computer manufacturers that pre-install Windows on retail-level PCs. This could change a lot of things in this world, and even one or two in my own family.

I have a stepdaughter who is about to get her first computer and Internet connection. Alicia's mom (my wife, Debbie) does not want her to run Windows because Alicia, as a new user, would have her system messed up by almost every virus or worm that came along if she did. Besides, Alicia's two elementary school-age children are already familiar with Linux because all their computer experience has been at our house, and we have a Microsoft-free household.

Since Debbie and I travel frequently and are not always available to provide in-person hand-holding, the ideal would be for Alicia to buy a brand-name computer that comes with a good hardware warranty and basic "getting started" user support -- for Linux. Yes, I can cobble together a box out of "stuff" we have around and give it to her, but this doesn't solve the support problem, nor does online Linux support; Alicia will only have one computer, and if she can't get on the Internet for some reason, all the IRC and email help in the world won't do her any good. She needs someone she can call and say, "My computer doesn't do ___" and get a simple, "Here's how you fix that" answer.

We tried to buy a Gateway with an extended warranty and install user-loving Mandrake on it ourselves as a second-best alternative. The Gateway salesperson told us our selected computer "ought to run Linux," but it didn't quite. Despite assurances that it had a hardware modem, it didn't. It had a Winmodem. I could have easily installed another modem, but it seemed silly to buy a brand new computer and immediately modify it, especially since that would raise warranty questions, and would therefore void our main reason for buying a new, major brand computer in the first place. So we sent the Gateway computer back. Oh, well.

Alicia is exactly the kind of person mass-market computer manufacturers need to reach if they want new home user customers. She is a single mother on a very limited budget who wants a computer so she can learn how to use it well enough to get a decent white-collar position instead of bouncing from one low-level warehouse job to another. And she wants her kids to become familiar with computers and the Internet beyond the minimal exposure they get in school. She doesn't need anything fancy or fast, just a low-cost box that will handle simple home and office tasks along with Web surfing, email, and maybe a few games for the kids.

And yet, no one with a recognizable brand name in the PC business wants to sell Alicia the basic, Linux-loaded computer she needs. The excuse computer manufacturers had for this failure in the past was that Microsoft's OEM contracts penalized them for installing non-Windows operating systems, and kept them from installing Windows and any other OS side-by-side on the same box. Whether you like the proposed antitrust settlement or not, it will probably tear down this barrier to Linux adoption. Gateway's people will be able to sell Alicia the entry-level box she needs, and if they wow her with service, once she gets that coveted office job and her children are a little older, Gateway shouldn't have much trouble selling Alicia a second, more powerful computer -- and a network card for the "old" one so that the two can share an Internet connection.

I focus on Gateway here not because of my recent experience with them, but because they are the "weakest" of the big-time U.S. desktop computer builders right now, the one whose marketing people are most in need of some way to differentiate their company in the marketplace. They could use Linux as a tool to do this, assuming they no longer need to fear Microsoft retaliation if they offer Linux alternatives.

At the bottom end of the price curve, the Linux option would help Gateway get business from people like Alicia; Windows XP requires more powerful (read: more expensive) hardware than previous Windows versions, so a company that offered an entry-level Linux-only computer would have a significant price advantage in both software and hardware over one that only offered Windows. Support costs for Linux might be slightly higher in the initial post-sale period, but would probably be lower overall because of fewer problems with viruses, registry corruption, and other Windows-only troubles. And a little clever cooperation with Mandrake, SuSE or Red Hat to make a super-simple, entry-level "Gateway-Linux" distribution that would require a user to do little more than set the time, then type in a phone number, user name, and password to get online (or click on a button to sign up with an ISP that paid for the opportunity to grab new users), would probably cut Linux support calls (and costs) to sub-Windows levels.

On more pricey computers, dual-boot systems would give current Windows users who are curious about Linux a chance to explore this new-to-them operating system with hardly any effort. In a time when computer makers are all struggling to keep from being viewed as commodity vendors whose products are selected purely by price, a "Best of Both Worlds" promotion featuring Windows and Linux running side by side on a single computer could have a powerful impact. Imagine a TV spot in a suburban home where one proto-geek kid wants Linux as a learning tool, whose siblings are satisfied with Windows for their minimal AOL chat and homework research needs. The pitch could be, "Gee, Mom and/or Dad, now you can give all the kids what they want in one reasonably-priced box instead of blowing for two." (And when the geeky kid totally hogs that one computer, as is almost sure to happen before long, there's a second sales opportunity!)

Gateway has spent a lot of money building attractive Gateway Country stores all over the United States. They not only sell computers but offer training classes and networking services. Hire one or two local LUG members per store, part-time, to run "Introduction to Linux" classes, and training would be covered. One "Linux and cross-platform networking specialist" could be shared across several stores, and I'm willing to bet plenty of Gateway tech employees already use Linux on their own without telling their bosses; if Gateway brought them out of the closet, as it were, they would need few, if any, new hires to offer Linux and cross-platform networking service. Gateway would no longer be forced to stammer and shuffle its corporate feet when a corporate customer walks in the door and says, "From what I'm reading, it seems that even if I stick to Windows on my desktops, Linux is the way to go for my servers. Can you help me put this kind of network together?"

This would all be good for Gateway, good for Linux, and good for computer-buying individuals and businesses. And it is the otherwise disappointing DoJ/Microsoft settlement that just might make this rosy scenario possible.

Assuming a modicum of civilized behavior by Microsoft, there would be only one question left to answer before this could all become reality: Will Gateway's management have enough imagination to take advantage of this huge opportunity if it is suddenly presented to them?

I personally don't care one way or the other. If Gateway doesn't harness Linux as a home and small office PC marketing tool, sooner or later one of the other big computer manufacturers will. And that manufacturer will sell a computer to Alicia, and many more computers to others whose situations are similar to hers.


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