It would seem that the folks at Dell recently asked their customers for
ideas on how to sell them more systems. The most popular idea: sell
laptops and desktop systems with Linux installed. Dell's response
so far, seems half-hearted. The company will "certify" SUSE Linux (and,
perhaps, some other distributions) on some of their systems, but still will
not offer pre-installed systems. That is a shame; one assumes that many of
the people asking for Linux are not, necessarily, asking for the
character-building experience of installing it themselves. Still, a
"certification" that Linux should work on a given system has its value.
Companies like Dell will start selling Linux-installed systems when they
see that there is money to be made by doing so. Or, if they fail to serve
a real market, other companies will certainly jump in. Helping these
companies see an opportunity in Linux-installed
systems requires that those of us with an interest in such systems let the
vendor know that we would buy them - and that we follow through when the
products are made available.
Pre-installed systems have a number of advantages, starting with the fact
that they are an existence proof
that Linux will run properly on the hardware. Even if the user eventually
upgrades the system or installs another distribution altogether, the
software mix and configuration files which came with the original system
can be invaluable. Not having to put together a working X configuration,
for example, can save a lot of time and pain. This remains true even in
2007, when distributors have been working for a decade (or more) to
eliminate as much installation pain as possible.
By eliminating the installation uncertainties, pre-installed systems lower
the barrier to entry for those who would like to give Linux a try. When
pre-installed, desktop-oriented systems are readily available, it stands to
reason that the overall usage share of Linux in desktop environments will
grow. In time, that growth will bring us greater mindshare - and more
The biggest advantage of all, however, is likely to come from a different
direction. It is well known that certain vendors are not particularly
concerned about whether their offerings work with free software. No amount of
pressure from individual customers is likely to have much effect in
changing their point of view. Should a company like Dell get into the
desktop Linux business, however, that company will have a great interest in
working with Linux-compatible hardware. When large systems vendors start
telling the hardware manufacturers that they need to make Linux-compatible
devices, those manufacturers will tend to listen.
To this end, when we ask for systems with Linux installed, it is good to be
specific: we want systems which work with 100% free software. A system
with binary-only drivers is not the pre-installed "Linux system" that many
or most of us have in mind. If a company like Dell starts shipping
proprietary modules, chances are good that it will discover the associated
hassles (supporting an undebuggable kernel, potential legal issues, etc.)
in a hurry and change its ways. But it would be better if that discovery
phase could be shorted out altogether. Making sure that the vendors know
what we have in mind when we ask for "Linux systems" can only help make
things happen that way.
The plan for World Domination is sometimes a little vague on the details.
Widespread availability of Linux-installed systems is certainly an
important milestone on that plan, one which many of us expected to see some
years ago. The fact that Dell's customers are calling for pre-installed
systems in greater numbers suggests that we may be getting closer to
achieving that objective at last. Perhaps one of these years, sometime
soon, really will be the year of desktop Linux.
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