Dell to Sell Linux PCs

After collecting some 1,800 new product and service ideas from IT users and customers using an online "suggestion box," Dell Inc. has announced that it's taking the user suggestions seriously and will soon debut and sell a new line of certified, user-ready Linux-loaded desktop and laptop computers.

The Dell IdeaStorm Web site, where customers and other IT enthusiasts can offer recommendations about future Dell products and configurations that they'd want to buy, was started on Feb. 16 by CEO Michael Dell, who is looking for ways to re-energize the company's sales and financial performance after several disappointing quarters.

One post that got a lot of interest was the idea that Dell bring back a reasonably priced laptop computer that runs Linux.

Just a week after debuting the IdeaStorm site, the company said Friday night that the Linux-loaded desktops and laptops will be the first user-generated suggestions that it will follow.

"It's exciting to see the IdeaStorm community's interest in open-source solutions like Linux and OpenOffice," the company said in a post on the Web site. "Your feedback has been all about flexibility and we have seen a consistent request to provide platforms that allow people to install their operating system of choice. We are listening, and as a result, we are working with Novell to certify our corporate client products for Linux, including our 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 said that other Linux distributions were also suggested by users, and that Dell will look into possible certifications with other Linux brands across its product lines.

And while earlier Linux-based machines didn't exactly set the company's sales charts on fire, several IT analysts and Linux luminaries said conditions are better for Dell to try again.

"I think it would be very worthwhile for Dell," said Jon "Maddog" Hall, the executive director of Linux International, an open-source advocacy group in Amherst, N.H. "It's always better when a hardware manufacturer works with software vendors" to integrate their products for users. "That's what makes a good combination. That's why Apple is so good at what they do."

Hall, who hasn't used a Windows-based computer in some six or seven years, said that with more Linux applications available, the time may be right for Dell to release such hardware. "Today, with several good Linux desktop distributions like Ubuntu, Red Hat and Novell SUSE, [the tide is] turning -- particularly with people who are a little dissatisfied with Vista and its minimum hardware requirements. I think this would be a good time to revisit this."

Eric S. Raymond, president of The Open Source Initiative and author of The Cathedral and The Bazaar, said in an e-mail that the postings from users on the Dell site is "a sign [that] users are demanding genuine choices. Microsoft's line is doubtless going to be that what we've seen is a tiny band of zealots stuffing the IdeaStorm ballot box," Raymond wrote.

"In truth, I actually considered that possibility myself. But I dismissed it on evidence" that included posts from other users who complained about real-world concerns such as pop-ups and dealing with support personnel in foreign Dell tech-support call centers, he wrote.

"The second-order implications are even more interesting, because I think there's no way that Michael Dell didn't see this coming," Raymond wrote. "His company has been quietly selling Linux machines to business customers for several years -- which means he's got more than enough real-world market data to see where the trends are going. Mr. Dell had to have a pretty strong suspicion that Linux preinstalls were going to show up as a top user demand before the fact -- and yet, he let IdeaStorm happen anyway. This tells me he isn't nearly as nervous about angering Microsoft as he used to be. Something in the balance of power between the world's largest PC vendor and the crew in Redmond has shifted, and not in Redmond's favor. You can bet money on that."

Running Linux on Dell laptops could have another lure, Raymond wrote. "I think one significant problem Dell and Microsoft are facing is just that Vista is too resource-hungry and bloated to run well on sub-$500 machines, which are the highest-volume market segment now. Dell may be arranging itself some maneuvering room to preinstall an [operating system] that won't make its low-end hardware look like crap."

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk in Bath, Maine, said the move could work if Dell sets its expectations appropriately for Linux-equipped laptops. "But people expecting Linux [on laptops] to have the same impact as in the server market [where the operating system is widely used in corporate IT] would be a stretch."

O'Grady said free Linux distributions such as Ubuntu have matured and "in many respects are equal to [Microsoft] Windows or Macintosh OS X."

Such a configuration won't soon unseat Microsoft's dominance in the marketplace, he said, but there is a maturing market for the combination. "It just depends on how seriously Dell will take the opportunity," O'Grady said. "I don't think it's ridiculous at all."

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., agreed. "I'm an undying optimist where customer choice comes in," he said. And for Dell, which has suffered through a string of disappointing financial quarters and the replacement of CEO Kevin Rollins by company founder Michael Dell, a Linux-loaded laptop line could spark the search for new market share, King said. "Given the company's present state, I think it's critically important to investigate sales opportunities wherever they might be," he said. "I think that anything's worth looking at for Dell."

Tony Iams, an analyst at Ideas International in Rye Brook, N.Y., said the question for Dell is whether there is enough critical mass to justify the investment. "This can be an opportunity for Dell to pick up some incremental business, to pick up some users who have this interest," Iams said. "They do exist. Dell is trying to come up with some new opportunities, so it makes sense that they would attempt this."

At least one analyst urged caution. "You have to take this with a grain of salt," because many of the people posting to the Dell site might have a predisposition for anti-establishment ideas and trends, said Mark Margevichius, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "I'm not sure it's the marketplace at large. Nonetheless, they have struck a nerve."

The bottom line, he said, is that "if it makes sense for Dell's business to partner with the Linux industry or anyone else, they'd do it. If Dell could sell Mac OS X on Dell hardware, they would do it, if they could sell more."

Caroline Dietz, a Dell spokeswoman, said the company will continue to review the ideas floated on the IdeaStorm site and adopt them as it sees fit. "We're constantly evaluating our client products market for customer demand and a clear preference. Dell has seen over the last few years that there have been meaningful improvements in ease of use and function with Linux."

A Microsoft spokesman could not be reached for comment.

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