WHAT kind of computer does Michael Dell use?
Last April, the company’s Direct2Dell blog reported that the chairman and CEO of the world’s second largest computer manufacturer had begun using a Precision M90 notebook and a handful of open source applications running on Ubuntu 7.04, the latest release of one of the world’s most popular free Linux distributions.
The tidbit about the chairman’s new notebook was yet another sign that the computer maker is taking Linux seriously as a viable alternative to Windows.
Earlier, the company said it would offer some consumer desktop PCs and notebooks with factory-installed Linux, in response to a survey last March where 70 percent of 100,000 respondents said they would use such computers at home or in the office.
On May 1, the company ended speculation over which flavor of Linux it would choose by announcing a deal with Canonical, the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu.
As part of the deal, Canonical will certify the Dell models that come with Ubuntu and will also provide support for the Linux distribution, which users will have the option to buy from Dell’s Web site.
Although the deal involves only a few models and the Ubuntu PCs will be available only in the United States at the start, the program is significant all the same because it raises the profile of Linux, which was mostly used on servers just a few years ago.
“An initiative like this by Dell is phenomenally important in terms of raising the attention of the whole, broader industry to the importance of Linux as a [desktop] platform,” says Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth, who was in Austin, Texas to announce the deal.
“What we’re going to see in the next couple of years is… more and more mainstream folks choose Linux as a platform because of its inherent characteristics.”
On his blog, Shuttleworth adds that Dell’s announcement will also encourage hardware manufacturers to provide Linux drivers for the devices they sell, thereby removing one of the major obstacles–compatibility–to a wider adoption of the open source operating system.
“Those manufacturers who are Linux-aware will have a significant advantage selling their components to global PC vendors who are shipping Linux, because those PC vendors can offer the same components across both Linux and Windows PC’s. That commonality reduces cost, and cost is everything in the volume PC market,” Shuttleworth writes.
Ironically, factory-installed Linux offerings are far less important in markets like the Philippines, where consumers are more likely to buy white boxes with no operating systems than branded desktop PCs with Windows installed. Often, these buyers will opt to install pirated Windows instead and save a bundle.
This is not the case with notebooks, of course, where hardware and software compatibility is a bigger issue.
In either case, there may be business opportunities for savvy PC retailers who can charge a minimal service fee for installing Ubuntu or some other user-friendly Linux distribution on white-box PCs and notebooks. Local PC and notebook assemblers, too, can get into the act and offer cost-effective Linux systems without the “operating system tax” that branded PCs carry.
The ultimate selling point, however, isn’t the price, even though getting a free copy of Ubuntu–which already comes with its own office suite and a truckload of other free software–looks a lot more attractive than paying P6,988 for Windows Vista Home Premium OEM and P7,188 for MS Office 2007 Home and Student OEM.
The best argument for going to Linux on the desktop is its stability and its resilience to viruses and spyware that are the bane of Windows computing.
Linux on the desktop will grow stronger, simply because it makes sense. This early, smart PC vendors and retailers should invest in developing some expertise in the increasingly popular operating system and learning which of their products work with Linux. It’s not that difficult, and the payoffs will grow as Linux usage rises.