Why the Dell/Ubuntu Deal Won't Improve Linux's Market Share

Monday Jun 11th 2007 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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Dell’s move to sell Linux desktops created plenty of excitement – and also faces serious challenges.

Over the past few weeks much has been written about Dell’s decision to offer desktop and notebook PCs that have the Ubuntu Linux distro installed on them as opposed to Windows. Dell offered this distro based on overwhelming levels of feedback from the IdeaStorm community. The community cried out for a Linux distro (Ubuntu in particular), Dell delivered. But despite the fact that this is a huge step towards making a Linux distro mainstream, I firmly believe this move won’t have any significant positive effect on the Linux market share.

When you take a few steps back from the furor and zealotry and take a close look at what’s happened here, you will quickly start to see the cracks. One problem is that Dell appears to be under the misguided impression that listening to the IdeaStorm community is the same as listening to customers. It’s not. Anyone can register and become an instant member of the IdeaStorm community. What Dell listened to wasn’t a cross-section of customers, but rather a pressure group.

There are a series of other pressure groups in operation on IdeaStorm right now, people who are putting their own agendas on the table and expecting Dell to carry them out. Now that Dell gave in to the request to have a Linux distro and responded by picking Ubuntu, the focus has shifted to having OpenOffice or Firefox preinstalled, or to having a greater range of Linux distros. Dell’s going to have to draw a line under some of these requests and reject them, which is going to be unpopular and Dell will have to suffer the consequences.

But it’s not just IdeaStorm that’s flawed; how Dell has implemented and rolled out Linux is also flawed.

First off, Dell played favorites with Ubuntu over other Linux distros. After having used a number of Linux distros, I’m convinced that Dell made the right choice in going with Ubuntu. Communities supporting some other Linux distros don’t seem too happy with the exclusive nature of the deal. But that’s how business works and my take on why Dell chose to partner with Ubuntu is because of the professional face that Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) presents.

Now that Dell is shipping PCs loaded with Ubuntu, there will be some who will expect Dell to support a whole raft of distros. Given the likely cost to Dell of testing systems, and especially given that Dell has admitted that desktop Linux will account for less that 1% of PCs shipped over the next 12 months, this is unlikely to happen. The open source community needs to keep one thing in mind – Dell’s focus is not on building bridges with open source communities or promoting Linux over Windows. Dell’s focus is selling PCs and making a profit. It’s not about charity; it’s about the bottom line.

There are other flaws in the way that the deal was implemented. The limited range of PCs that are offered with an Ubuntu install is a problem. There’s one notebook model (the Inspiron E1505n), one budget desktop model (the Dimension E520n) and one from the high-end XPS system (although it’s a low-end 410n). The base price for the E520n and E1505n notebook is $599 while the base price for the XPS 410n is $849. When you compare the prices to comparable systems running Windows Vista Home Premium, the difference in price is $50. But dig a little deeper and that $50 doesn’t seem like much at all, considering what you get. When it comes to software support for the Ubuntu systems, users have the choice of “serve yourself” support at the Dell Community Forum or paying Canonical for a support package. No free telephone support from Dell for Linux.

That’s fine for people who know what they are doing with Linux, but a situation that will suck for any newbies. But let’s be honest here. There systems aren’t aimed at newbies because they aren’t listed on the main Dell sales website. You have to go to here to find them. Oh, and they’re only available for purchase in the US. Oh, and for legal reasons Dell won’t be including support for file formats such as WMA, WMV, MP3, DVD, etc. It’s no wonder that Dell isn’t expecting to sell many of these rigs.

My guess is that from Dell’s perspective, this is partly an experiment and partly a way to please the masses over on IdeaStorm. Dell’s decision not to allow Linux to openly compete with Windows is an indication that the company doesn’t want to sour any relationships with Microsoft (and let’s face it, if Microsoft were to add an extra $5 or $10 to the price of a Vista Home Premium license, it would have a severe impact on Dell’s profitability). If, over the next five years Dell discovers that there is in fact a market for Linux, they can take it from there, if not, they can shelve the idea and say that they tried.

This is also a safe route for Ubuntu and Canonical. By selling Dell rigs to existing people already in the Linux loop, Canonical doesn’t risk having to face angry users and explain why Ubuntu won’t run their favorite Windows applications.

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