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Ubuntu's Wild Ride on the Dell Roller Coaster

By Katherine Noyes
Aug 2, 2010 5:00 AM PT

There are many occupational hazards associated with being a fan of FOSS, but one Linux Girl never expected to have to endure is what's afflicting her now: whiplash.

Ubuntu's Wild Ride on the Dell Roller Coaster

Yes, after all the unexpected twists and turns in Dell's approach to Ubuntu, another surprise maneuver came up last week that was simply too much.

The move in question, you ask? Well, just days after the news broke that Dell had removed all Ubuntu-preloaded machines from its site, reports emerged that the company is actually *expanding* its desktop Ubuntu selection.

WTF, Dell?

This, after Dell's "love letter" to Linux went up -- and then down -- and after it crafted the daringly insightful "Windows vs. Ubuntu" comparison guide. All in the space of a few weeks!

Many heads were apparently spinning over on Digg as well: While the news of the Ubuntu removal garnered almost 1,200 Diggs and more than 400 comments, subsequent word of the expansion had received only about 400 Diggs and 80 comments by Friday.

Head and neck injuries tend to have that effect. Linux Girl is with you, Digg masses!

Clearly, it's going to take us all a little time to recover from the shock; eventually, however, there will be nothing left to do but lift up our heads once again and ask, "WTF?"

'Dell Is in Trouble'

"Perhaps Dell has finally become large enough for the left hand to not know what the right is doing," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza suggested. "Or alternatively, perhaps Microsoft's influence within Dell only runs so far."

Then again, "Dell is in trouble," opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site. "We already knew that, with their $100 million consent agreement because they lied about previous profitability. It helps explain why they wanted to do the share buy-back a few years ago to help prop up the share price."

So, not only was Dell not as profitable as it claimed, "but now there's $100 million more of 'overhead' built into Dell products over the next few years," Hudson explained. "What can they do except cut costs, trim product lines and try to squeeze as much out of a slimmed-down operation?"

Linux PCs "might have been bringing in a few dollars of profit, but the bean-counters -- looking at right-now-today margins instead of long-term prospects -- probably don't realize that linux products weren't cannibalizing sales from other parts of the company," Hudson added. "Those sales don't switch to Windows -- they go elsewhere. Or the person purchases it, then demands a refund on Windows, as they're allowed to do."

'This Is Still a Slap'

Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack saw it differently.

"It's nice that Dell is expanding their offerings, but this is still a slap since it's not likely they would drop MS Windows from their website while they reorganize," Mack told Linux Girl. "Also, I wonder if they will quit playing games and offer Linux and Windows on identical hardware so we can finally compare prices between the offerings on the PC market.

"I for one wouldn't mind a drop-down box that allowed me to select between Windows and Linux, even if it popped up a huge warning box that warned me that I can't run software designed for Windows," Mack added.

'All This Does Is Hurt the Little Guys'

On the other hand, "I really don't see why anyone cares at all WHAT Dell offers," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet opined. "If anything, all this does is hurt the little guys that have tried to make a living out of serving Linux customers, like System76."

The simple fact, hairyfeet added, "is Dell is losing money when they sell Linux, because they can't load the PC with trialware junk which makes them a pretty penny. Same as Worst Buy and their 'optimization,' which is nothing but taking off the trialware and again getting paid to do so," he explained.

"So while it is nice that they offer anything at all, it really isn't in Dell's best interest to offer Linux," hairyfeet concluded. "And this time it really doesn't have anything to do with MSFT."

'Without Rhyme or Reason'

Dell is fragmented, blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. "Their site is a mess, and they do not have a vision for GNU/Linux.

"I do not understand why a customer cannot dial up a machine, choose an OS and go to the checkout," he said. "That's what other OEMs do, but no, Dell fragments their site with different products available to different customers without rhyme or reason."

After all, "anyone on the planet could want a netbook or a desktop with GNU/Linux for their own reasons -- why won't Dell make it easy to find?" Pogson asked. "Imagine a car dealer with red cars with 4-cylinder engines and blue cars with 6-cylinder engines. If a customer wants a red car with a 6-cylinder engine, Dell will not sell it, even though the 'engine' -- a hard drive, in this case -- merely has to be installed in the factory."

'Ubuntu Rides at the Back of the Bus'

The only motivation, as Pogson sees it, "is possibly they are trying to please M$ without offending the FTC, who might frown on exclusive dealing," he suggested.

"Dell cannot be prosecuted for anticompetitive acts if they do sell some of the competition's products," Pogson explained.

"Dell started selling GNU/Linux around the time AMD v. Intel was active, and we know Dell had a problem with respect to Intel's payments/discounts," he pointed out. "Perhaps Dell saw it as a way to avoid another issue with respect to M$.

"Businesses used to have 'token blacks' or 'token women,'" Pogson noted. "I think GNU/Linux may be Dell's 'token OS.' Ubuntu definitely rides at the back of the bus on Dell's site."


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