Mikey Dell Has a Good Point

Why won’t Dell sell a Linux desktop? Surprisingly, it has little to do with Dell at all.
As a Linux user, Dell isn’t exactly my favorite company to buy PCs from these days. Dell doesn’t sell hardware with AMD processors (my preferred Linux architecture is Athlon64 and Opteron) and the company doesn’t support Linux as a preloaded desktop operating system, unless it’s on one of the manufacturer’s Workstation configurations. No, if I’m looking to build myself a new Linux box, I’m likely going to piece it together on spec with a Linux-friendly “white box” builder rather than hit the Dell web site, foregoing the company’s attractive pricing and configurations.
Recently, a good friend of mine, Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols of DesktopLinux.com, interviewed Michael Dell (http://www.desktoplinux.com/news/NS3822185143.html) and asked point-blank why Dell doesn’t support Linux on their desktop computers. I expected Mikey to say something along the lines of “because there’s no demand for it,” but instead, he came up with a very reasonable answer:
“People are always asking us to support Linux on the desktop, but the question is: ‘Which Linux are you talking about?’ If we say we like Ubuntu, people will say we picked the wrong one. The challenge we have with picking one is that we think we’d disenchant the other distributions’ supporters. It’s not that there are too many Linux desktop distributions, it’s that they’re all different, they all have supporters, and none of them can claim a majority of the market.”
Now, this could certainly be interpreted as a non-answer, because one could simply say in response, “Just freaking pick one, Mikey! You’re the damn boss of the volume PC industry! ” But I think he has a really good point: there’s just way, way too much variation and non-standardization among Linux distributions.
While Linux has made great strides as a server operating system on the x86 platform, and there are two clear leaders in the server arena — Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) — there’s no definitive leader on the Linux desktop. Because hardware and application support among desktop distributions vary, it would be daunting for a desktop PC supplier to pick one or try to support pre-loads for all or even several of them.
Even if Dell were to narrow it down to the two vendors they already support on the server side, Red Hat and Novell, which desktops should they choose? Red Hat Enterprise Workstation or Fedora? SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop or SUSE Linux? Clearly, not all four could be supported.
There’s a good case for preloading either the commercial version or the community version, because each variation addresses totally different markets — the former aims at corporate desktops, while the latter targets home/hobbyist users and open source developers, both of which Dell occupies sizable market share today. And before you tell me that RHEL and Fedora and SLED and SUSE Linux are just four different brand names for two operating systems and that it would be an easy task to support all four, think again. They may be derivatives of each other, but they are worlds apart in terms of regression testing and what each vendor is willing to certify works and is supported under what conditions. And we’re just talking about two vendors here. Introduce one or two more of the the smaller guys like Ubuntu, Mandriva, Xandros, and Linspire into the mix and you’ve got the makings of a support nightmare.
Certainly, if this is a problem for Dell, its a problem for all the other Tier 1 PC hardware vendors, like HP, Lenovo, and Gateway.
So what’s to be done?
Well, having all the major vendors get around a unified base platform and standardize on as much stuff as humanly possible is a good place to start. While the Linux Standard Base (http://www.lsb.org/) is a great idea, its moving awfully slow towards actually establishing a reference standard and probably doesn’t go far enough to actually implement a meta-distribution in and of itself. UnitedLinux and Ransom Love had the right idea (way back when) to establish a unified platform for SUSE, Caldera, Connectiva, and TurboLinux, but the IBM v. SCO lawsuit pretty much deep-sixed that initiative. Despite previous failures, its my feeling that this strategy needs to be tried again in the current climate.
I really would like to see Red Hat, Novell, and all of the RPM- based distros agree on a common infrastructure that the industry can rally around. And, similarly, I think that the only way the Debian derivatives are going to see any traction is if they rally behind the DCC Alliance (http://www.dccalliance.org/) or an equivalent effort and really try to make it a success.
Until we have a common platform and common standards that guarantee consistent application behavior running on virtually all PC hardware, vendors like Dell will continue to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

Jason Perlow is a longtime contributor to Linux Magazine. You can reach Jason at class="emailaddress">jperlow@linux-mag.com.

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