Dell Invites Customers to Pick Favorite Linux Flavors

Ever since Dell launched its IdeaStorm Web site earlier this year, the company has been inundated with customers — and potential customers — clamoring for Dell to offer Linux preinstalled on desktop and laptop PCs.

In February, Dell said it would certify Novell’s Suse Linux on business desktop and laptop PCs, but stopped short of saying it would offer Linux on consumer-oriented PCs. Now Dell has returned to the Linux discussion table.

Survey Holds Clues

In a survey that Dell posted on its Web site Tuesday, the company says it is “listening” and asks survey participants to help Dell prioritize its Linux efforts. The company asks seven questions, including whether potential customers would use Linux for home or office use, their preferences for which Dell PCs most interest them, the types of activities in which they would engage (such as e-mail, Web browsing, gaming, music and software development), language priorities, user requirements for support, and which Linux distribution customers want most.

The question of which Linux distribution to use seems to the be the biggest hurdle. IdeaStorm participants have asked for multiple distributions, with Novell’s Suse, Red Hat Enterprise Desktop, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu all garnering significant interest.

The survey, of course, is designed to help Dell figure it all out — or at least give the company ammunition to use should it choose to exclude a particular distribution.

Matt Domsch, a Linux software architect for Dell, posted a note on the Direct2Dell blog promoting the survey. As of this morning, the blog post had received 345 comments, as well as an update from Domsch, who noted, “We’re overwhelmed by your responses, and we know the survey server is overloaded too. We’re working on it, and the survey will remain open until March 23, so you’ll have plenty of time to make your vote count.”

Cost Challenges

Despite the interest, Dell faces significant profitability issues.

“Built into the Windows model is a lot of money for support services and marketing and the product is a pass-through. In other words, the market accepts the (US)$100 over the hardware cost that Microsoft charges,” Enderle Group Principal Analyst Rob Enderle told LinuxInsider. “Linux is priced at cost and doesn’t generate these funds and the services are vastly more limited … so the OEM has to make up the gap, which comes out of its margin.”

Will Linux See Light?

If Dell gets some answers, actual delivery might be months away.

“Three months, I think, would be a stretch, and even six months would seem to be aggressive — assuming that they haven’t already been doing behind-the-scenes testing and QA (quality assurance),” Stephen O’Grady, an analyst for Redmonk, told LinuxInsider. “The difficulty is that they have to not only pick a distribution and QA it, but resource their call centers and support staff to support an entirely different operating system.”

In addition, people who already know and understand Linux are more likely to install their own preferred distribution of Linux. If Dell does reach success by gaining new Linux customers, many of these customers will drive up Linux support costs — hence the question in the survey relating to potential support needs. The end result is that Dell risks the collapse of its profit margin.

“If you could charge the same or more for Linux [as a Windows-based PC], you could mitigate cost or create a profitable business,” Enderle explained. “But the market views Linux as worth less than Windows right now and won’t accept the price you need to charge to make a reasonable profit.”

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