Dell and Desktop Linux: Can it Work?

Dell's customers want greater choice when buying a PC. Is offering Linux on the desktop worth the PC vendor's time?

By now you’ve probably heard about Dell’s IdeaStorm website, the PC maker’s online customer suggestion dropbox. Launched last week, it’s received a surprising amount of attention from users taking the opportunity to tell the company what they would like to see Dell offer in the way of products. Linux as an OS option and greater software choice top the list. Dell’s probably not terribly excited about either one.

The public relations goal behind IdeaStorm is to show that this isn’t the same old Dell. In the past, when Dell faced problems they tackled it by improving their operating margins, reducing the number of manufacturers they worked with, and generally treated every problem as an efficiency issue. With IdeaStorm, Dell is out to prove that they also want to listen and respond to their customers.

$60B companies don’t turn on a dime but it’s possible Dell is at least giving desktop Linux some consideration. Let’s forget for a minute that Dell offers a Linux desktop solution for small business with its n-Series line and look at the pros and cons of why they would or wouldn’t want to take Linux desktop mainstream.

How to Make it Happen

Operating System For Dell to offer a Linux desktop, they’d have to tie up with one of the commercial distributions — Red Hat or Novell. They would then get to field all of the complaints from everyone that wanted [insert favorite niche distribution here] but they could spin the fact they were the first tier one vendor to really throw their weight behind desktop Linux as a positive.

Support Support would be a big issue for Dell. They don’t want to lose existing Windows support contracts but they also don’t want to do the work of supporting desktop Linux themselves, as Matt Domsch, Linux Software Architect, mentioned on the Direct2Dell blog last November.

If you buy a Dell notebook and run Linux on it, does Dell’s hardware warranty still apply? Absolutely. You’ll need to demonstrate you’re having a hardware problem using the Dell Diagnostics CD. Will Dell (today) provide full Linux software support for that system? No. You’ll be counting on a community support model for software issues, but many people are already a part of that global community and it suits them just fine.

I doubt this is going to change overnight.

Dell would have to leave the support element to the Linux vendor they’ve tied in with — another good reason to standardize on a single distribution — and take a percentage of each support contract they sold.

Hardware Dell hardware and consumer products are built for Windows. That’s not going to change. And there’s probably some Dell hardware that isn’t going to work well with Linux without a significant engineering effort.

There’s not a great solution to this since the last thing you want to appear in a customer’s online shopping cart is a warning that the laptop and the camera they’re buying won’t work together.

Dell would need to create a subset of their products that they were sure were Linux bulletproof and offer them up in a separate section of the site. Dell Validated Configurations, so to speak.

Verdict: Public relations coup, little impact to the bottom line.

Why it Won’t Work

Operating System Two words for the 67,000+ that voted on IdeaStorm for pre-installed Ubuntu, Fedora, or OpenSUSE and the 23,000+ that wanted a no-OS installation option: dream on.

The margins in the PC business are traditionally very tight. As an illustration, analysts have inferred from HP’s last quarterly financials that the company had captured still more of Dell’s marketshare. What led them to draw that conclusion? HP’s earnings went down. Read that again: HP’s share of the PC market increased but their earnings went down because of low PC margins.

With that reality of the market, you can’t expect Dell to further reduce their margins on PC’s by eliminating all of the software they traditionally include and make money on. And besides, Dell isn’t losing marketshare to some no-name whitebox vendor, they’re losing it to HP who offer the dazzling array of Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business as OS options.

Support No support infrastructure for desktop Linux is in place. Dell probably isn’t interested in another line of revenue being eliminated.

Hardware Hardware support could be an issue and might limit the number of models that Dell could offer Linux on. Do all of Dell’s consumer products work with Linux? Does Dell want to process a ton of printer returns because of compatibility issues?

Verdict: Best to leave desktop Linux alone.

To sum up, should we expect a Michael Dell keynote at LinuxWorld this summer? Can what is taking place on the IdeaStorm site be considered critical mass for the Linux desktop market?

I think the answer to both questions is probably, “No.” The customer responses on IdeaStorm are encouraging and will give the vendors in the Linux desktop market talking points for some time to come but they don’t represent a turning point for Dell’s business.

Dell’s PC business was built on efficiently selling Windows machines. For Dell management the thought of offering Linux desktops probably seems like a loss of focus from the core business that got them where they are. And that view — that “Vista,” perhaps we should say — probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.

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