Dell Puts Preinstalled Linux on the Table

Dell’s new IdeaStorm Web site, which invites the public to post ideas and product suggestions to the company, has exploded with interest in desktop Linux. Thousands of site community members have asked Dell to preinstall several different versions of Linux on desktop and laptop computers, prompting Dell to take steps toward definitive action.

The company, however, stopped short of promising to deliver Linux preinstalled on desktops and laptops. Dell only indicated in a statement on its Web site that it’s working with Novell to certify its corporate client products for Linux, including Dell’s OptiPlex desktops, Latitude notebooks and Dell Precision workstations.

“This is another step towards ensuring that our customers have a good experience with Linux on our systems,” the company noted.

No Promises

As for non-enterprise Linux solutions, an actual delivery or certification plan remains elusive.

“As this community knows, there is no single customer preference for a distribution of Linux. In the last week, the IdeaStorm community suggested more than half a dozen distributions. We don’t want to pick one distribution and alienate users with a preference for another,” Dell stated. “We want users to have the opportunity to help define the market for Linux on desktop and notebook systems. In addition to working with Novell, we are also working with other distributors and evaluating the possibility of additional certifications across our product line.”

Profitability Questions Arise

Because Linux is essentially a free operating system, it seems on the surface that Dell could offer Linux preinstalled on a desktop PC at a lower cost than offering Windows. The buyer wouldn’t have to pay for Windows Vista, which retails for around US$200 for the Home Basic version.

Customers might expect a significant cost decrease in buying a Linux-based desktop, however the current economics don’t support those customer expectations. Dell, for instance, pays significantly less than retail prices for Windows Vista, so Dell can’t simply cut its own PC retail prices by $200.

Upside Down Numbers

“Dell has always had a problem with Linux,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider. “The numbers — at least on the desktop — are upside down and they have to watch margins hard. There is more support cost surrounding Linux.”

With Linux, Dell won’t get any incentives from Microsoft for customer support, nor will the computer maker get device driver support, Enderle explained.

“The last time Dell did the cost test, Linux came out negative,” Enderle added. “If they can get the same price for a Linux box [as a Windows box], it works out, but if they have to discount for the cost of Vista it comes out negative.”

A Better Option?

With customers clamoring for Linux, Dell is in the difficult position of trying to please everyone. A better option, Enderle said, would be to provide Novell and Red Hat, for example, with a specification for an implementation of desktop Linux that would provide a high level of compatibility with Windows and sport a look and feel similar to that of Mac OS X, for example.

Using the best implementation, Dell could then position the result initially for consumer and small and medium businesses, but grow it as it matured and gained acceptance.

“The trick is, they have to be able to charge the same or more than they charge for Windows to make this work, and for that they need the offering to look premium,” Enderle explained. “Otherwise, the numbers don’t work for them on the desktop.”

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