Dissecting Dell’s Desktop Linux Moves

The small steps that Dell has taken toward offering desktop and notebook PCs preloaded with Ubuntu 7.04 could mean a giant leap forward for the viability of desktop Linux.

Linux preloads from Dell would give computer buyers who aren’t out to install their own operating system an opportunity to choose Linux in the same way they choose Windows–by buying a system, taking it out of the box and starting to use it. Ubuntu on Dell would mean that seasoned Linux users could buy one of these systems with the knowledge that the hardware would work with their operating system of choice–even if they prefer some other distribution, hardware that works with one Linux distribution can be made to work with any distribution.

As I opined in this space a few weeks ago, Ubuntu makes the most sense for a mainstream desktop Linux option. Ubuntu is polished and popular, and isn’t encumbered by the yearly update fees that come with the Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise options with which OEMs, including Dell, have so far flirted. “Free” is a big part of Linux’s appeal, but fleeing Windows’ activation routines and genuine advantage software for Red Hat Enterprise’s entitlements and installation numbers doesn’t feel awfully free.

However, before we go out and rent the convertible Cadillac from which Michael Dell and Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth will Grand Marshal the 2007: Year of Desktop Linux parade, there remain a good many questions to be answered. Until more details emerge, it’s tough to gauge to what extent the Linux-loving hordes that flooded Dell’s Ideastorm suggestion site with comments will prove as liberal with their wallets as they were with their mouse clicks. In particular, we know fairly little about the nature of Dell’s Ubuntu offerings-to-be, including key details such as price and the selection of hardware that Dell plans to Ubuntu-enable.

Pricing is going to get a lot of attention, since the idea that every PC comes with a “Windows tax” that’s levied whether or not purchasers plan on running a free OS alternative really sticks in the craw of the desktop Linux rooters at whom Dell is aiming this initiative. However, it isn’t clear whether the freeness of Ubuntu will translate into lower PC costs. There’s broad speculation that between licensing discounts from Microsoft and monies paid for stocking PCs with teaser software, Windows preloads pay for themselves.

There’s also the contention that Ubuntu, as a new platform for Dell, will cost more to support. However, based on what we’ve heard so far, Dell will be providing support only for hardware, with software support being shunted to the community, to optional paid support contracts with Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical, or to another support vendor. There are certainly other costs for Dell to support an additional platform, but the support-optional status of Dell Ubuntu boxes will bolster customers’ lower-price expectations.

In addition to fair-seeming pricing, the success of Ubuntu on Dell will depend on whether Dell offers up attractive hardware for sale with Linux. My Linux Watch colleague Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols has reported that the systems under consideration as Linux targets are among Dell’s budget machines. Cordoning off Ubuntu to the low-powered portion of Dell’s lineup would mean cutting off potential sales. A better course would be to offer Ubuntu on a cross-section of Dell’s system types.

Dell has moved boldly so far–the time that’s elapsed between the launch of the Ideastorm site and Dell’s Ubuntu announcement has been much shorter than I’d imagined. If Dell continues to move decisively, and if it executes well, the company has an opportunity to tap into new markets and claim a substantial point of differentiation over its PC rivals. There’s opportunity, also, for the Linux community to vote with its wallets and demonstrate, not only to Dell but to the entire ISV and IHV community, that there’s money to be made from free.