Linux on Dells? I’m not too optimistic
Another day came by, I was minding my own business, reading the news on the net, and I bump into a very interesting article: Dell has a site with a very original concept called IdeaStorm. Users will post entries about ideas they think the company should undertake, and other users will digg [cough] vote on the previously posted ideas. The most popular ideas will make the front page where they will be viewed by most of the public. They have an ‘upcoming ideas’ section where the new ideas that are picking up traction are displayed as well.
Before I begin my rant, let me just salute Kevin Rose. If envy (and therefore imitation) is the sencerest form of admiration, then a lot of people admire you right now. Even though you will never see this, I congratulate you. You have a very cool concept, and all the people that are bluntly stealing it from you is proof that it rocks. Keep on fighting the good fight!
Moving forward, the concept can only benefit them at the moment. They had a very bad time with the exploding battery scandal. They are losing market share to HP (more on that below), apple’s recent innovation in operating system software and desktop/laptop hardware is stealing the light from everyone including Dell and they haven’t had the best publicity lately. This is a good way to get ideas from the community and cater back to them exactly what they want. Keep the consumer happy, after all, they represent your main source of revenue.
So I follow the link in the article, hop on to the page. First thing I notice, they have the most painless registration I have ever seen. Kudos to the folks at Dell for that! Second thing I notice, the top idea, devastating everything else with the sheer number of votes, is consumers requesting Dell to ship computers with Ubuntu, SUSE or Fedora pre-installed. A big smirk magically appeared on my face. After all, I was reading the story on my Dell laptop which is running the latest version of Ubuntu. I continue reading the other posts, and I noticed that every 2 or 3 idea posts was the same concept, with a slight variant or just plainly repeated. What were they all clamoring for? Choice. With choice comes what they consider a better operating system, with a cheaper bottom line. After all Ubuntu and other Linux distros are offered free of charge. Red Hat and others are offered far cheaper than their Windows counterparts.
As A Linux user and Dell laptop owner, this is music to my ears. Despite Ubuntu having a very good driver repository (just about everything in my laptop is supported expect my dialup modem), I would love for it to come pre-installed. I would have support in my operating system (no support representative telling to press the ‘start’ button, and then telling me he can’t help me if i’m not running windows), I would have all the necessary, optimized drivers for all my components, I wouldn’t have to pay Microsoft a tax for using my computer.
So what’s wrong? Remember earlier when I said that HP has taken market share from Dell in the PC market? It was achieved, but at a price. They reduced their earnings even more, to make their products more cost competitive with Dell’s, which gave them more market but less earnings. More market, less money. This could be argued as a good long term move, but that’s beside the pont. And PC margins are already razor thin to begin with. Dell really can’t afford to reduce their margins more than they already are.
One of the key elements that helps keep the margins on the positive side of the balance is software sales, and promotional demos or pre-installed junk. You have to buy an OEM copy of windows weather you like it or not. That’s at least 100-150 dollars (I’m speculating, don’t know what the exact price for an OEM copy is). Plus all the huge AOL icon I see on my desktop when I first boot it up cannot be free publicity. Also keep in mind that Microsoft Office, and other software products are optional purchases that all can be pre-installed on your machine.
Why is this a problem? If they pre-install free software, they cannot make a margin on something that is free to begin with. Therefore that margin being made on the desktop/laptop as a whole just got smaller. That’s not good for business.
Ironically Dell, has had an “open source” line of computers for a while now, which has recently been expanded and renamed to the “N Series”. They come with no OS pre-installed, and a useless FreeDOS disk so that you may install the operating system of your choice. The assumption is that you will use it to install your favorite flavor of Linux in most cases. I read an interesting article where a dude configured a computer for purchase twice. They had the same hardware specifications, the only difference was that one was with the N Series option (No OS) and the ther with Windows Vista. The computer with no operating system costs 53 dollars more. Yes you read right, they are not providing an operating system, and the computer is actually more expensive. To me this is just insulting. Linux users are still on the geeky side of the spectrum of users. Therefore it’s probable that they will do their homework before making this kind of purchase, and just dismiss it.
Something else that caught my attention was the Ideas in Action page. This where they post the ideas that are taken and actually implemented in one way or another for the company. Linux is placed on the list. I was not at all surprised when I read that they were working with Red Hat and Novell in order to make this happen. They both offer for pay versions. I can probably anticipate with little uncertainty that the free version of Fedora or OpenSuse will not be among the available operating system options. Taking in consideration that one of the things that users want is to lower the bottom line of the machine, trading in one expense for another will not satisfy them. It can be argued that they cost less, therefore the bottom line will be lowered, but look at what they are doing without an operating system.
Another element that deserves consideration is technical support. Dell will have to train their current staff to support Linux environments or employ new staff members that will be providing this service. Keep in mind, since Linux can have a multitude of desktop environments an configurations, these support guys actually have to have a remote idea of what they are talking about. An idiot reading of a screen with troubleshooting instructions from a web application will not suffice anymore. More problems, less margin.
Drivers is another problem. Some of the hardware and peripherals they sell have windows-only drivers. Will they press the manufacturers to provide the missing drivers? Will they employ a team to develop the missing drivers themselves? Will they limit the linux sales to machine configurations with no problematic peripherals and hardware (say goodbye to the XPS line). Again, more problems, less margin.
I for one have promised that I will not spend another dollar on Microsoft products. Weather I keep my promise or not, only time will tell. I am a supporter of Linux and acknowledge it’s strong points above Microsoft’s offerings. As with everything else in life, a balance is maintained, so you will also find me admitting defeat in the areas where Microsoft triumphs over all other operating systems. I for one, am willing to pay the same for another operating system, but I am not the barometer that defines the market.
I’ve been faced with the following proposal one too many times: Just buy the machine with Vista, format the drive and install whatever you want. This is something I have already done. My current PC which originally came with XP installed is currently ‘Windowsless’. But this just results in paying Microsoft an unnecessary and unearned tax for using my computer. It’s simply stupid, and I will not do it again.
I am a fan of Dell. Have been for a while, and I was actually looking forward replacing my existing hardware with new Dell products when I got wind it would come pre-installed with Linux. Now, I am not so sure. Maybe paying for an overpriced MacBook is not such a bad idea after all. Who knows.