Mark Shuttleworth, the financier behind Ubuntu (thanks Mark!) tackles the problem of Linux in a recent blog post. He points out that profit margins are very low on these products, and that co-marketing funds from Microsoft make up a significant proportion of the profits. Without these funds, the profit margins on machines are so small that a problem with any single order can negate the profits on many orders. All it takes is one guy complaining that he “can’t install his [Windows] programs” and returning the computer to cancel out the profits on ten other sales. Unfortunately, the number of people who would do this kind of thing is way too high, as the average computer buyer really doesn’t know anything about Linux, and many sales of Linux PCs might end up being accidental, i.e. the person doesn’t realize what they’re getting into.
Mark also points out that it’s very expensive for Dell to try to cater to the wide range of desires that Linux users typically have. They want very specific things (e.g. this version of Ubuntu) and very specific types of hardware. Dell would have to deal with a huge compatibility list between dozens of distros and hardware configurations. In other words, not really practical.
So what’s the solution? Mark hits on it, but doesn’t fully consider it. It isn’t ideal, but then again, I don’t think there is an ideal solution to it. The idea is simple: ship the computers without an OS and include an install CD for your distro of choice in the box. All Dell would have to do is make sure their hardware is compatible with Linux (and that the distro they’re distributing has the correct drivers for it). Realistically, this is probably what most people would end up doing anyway. I ordered a machine pre-installed with Linux from Wal-Mart once, and the very first thing I did was install my own preferred distro. Even if a computer shipped with the latest version of Ubuntu, I don’t think I’d be able to resist the urge to reinstall. Who knows what Dell did to it? I’d rather just go with a default Gentoo install and make sure I know everything that’s going on.
So, as sad as that sounds, I think that is the solution: to just ship PCs without OSes and give the customer the opportunity to install the distro of their choice. This will help cut down Dell’s support costs; if the OS doesn’t come pre-installed, they don’t have to support it. And they can put prominent disclaimers on these OS-less computers saying that they’ll only support hardware issues. This should help to keep profits in the black, versus the unfortunate situation with customer support that I detailed above. This will be a good solution for experienced Linux users, and hey, for those that just want to try out Linux, I suppose an install guide could be shipped with the CD as well.
It’s just too bad about Microsoft’s monopoly. They hold such a stranglehold over the commodity PC market, and have successfully thrown their weight around for years to prevent Linux offerings. And now that Linux PCs from Dell may finally see the light of day, they’re going to be horribly stunted, as what we really want to do with them, have Linux pre-installed, is too expensive to support, and faces too many risks from the heavily Windows-centric PC user culture at large.