Ding Dong, Dell

By Andrew Price, 2007-05-02 04:50:19 in General.

So, Ubuntu being chosen by Dell as the Linux distro to ship on some of its machines is old news now, but what does it mean for the future? I've had some thoughts about the advantages it could have in the bigger picture but for it to pan out that way there are some caveats which I'll explain later.

The first advantage might be the effect of inspiring other large PC retailers to offer some flavour of Linux with their machines. This would be a big advantage to us consumers as prices might become more competitive as companies vie for customer favour in that market. You might start to see Christmas time bargain commercials with shiny new computers flying across the screen with the Ubuntu logo clearly in the corner of the desktop on daytime television.

It could also be a poke in the ribs for hardware vendors. If large PC retailers start to find that buying hardware which has good Linux support or open specifications/drivers is advantageous to their business models, more hardware vendors might wake up and open source their own specifications and drivers in order to attract those companies to their product lines. Dell might even see fit to fight in the corner of open source software and lobby hardware vendors to go open source just because, say, Michael Dell agrees with the free software philosophy (whether he does or not, I don't know).

Organisations with existing Dell contracts might benefit. I'm not entirely sure how these things work, but here's an example based in reality. My university seems to be keen on Dell PCs and I'm guessing that to buy that many machines they would need to work out a big contract deal with Dell which I'm also guessing would have some kind of time frame attached to it. If the university had to choose from the range of Dell products, and they came across Ubuntu, or maybe even an Edubuntu option for academic organisations (wink), they might recognise the added benefits of using open source software solutions in their networks and opt for that instead. I'm sure my university would prefer an operating system which didn't propagate worms, viruses and other malware throughout its network. Who wouldn't?

The one effect I'm sure about is that the news will raise the profile of Ubuntu and Linux as a feasible alternative to Windows. People browsing Dell's product range will see Ubuntu as an operating system option (maybe even a lower price tag, we'll see) and look into what advantages it would hold for them (free upgrades forever, etc.) and compare it to Windows before they've tried it. It'll help to put "Ubuntu" into the vocabulary of a wider audience and for people who tried Linux back in the 20th century and gave up on it because it wasn't user-friendly enough, it'll help to update their perceptions of Linux.

Of course, I did say there were a few caveats and here they are. In order for the Dell news to have these desired network effects, the whole industry would need to sit back and watch how Dell's business is doing in relation to it. Back in 1999, Dell tried to market Linux as a desktop solution but then decided there wasn't enough demand to carry on. This time, I feel success for Dell's Linux desktop range is more likely but as a realist I'm not entirely convinced. Microsoft has a large amount of people locked into its software and that lock-in is very strong. I think, in the Average Jill's mind, the switch to Linux will need to be sparked off by something greater than a few dollars difference in PC prices. They'll need to take a leap into the virtually-unknown after all. I hope Dell will market their new offering enthusiastically and wisely and in doing so help to carry over the whole feeling behind using Ubuntu and other open source solutions.

My prediction about the hardware vendors taking notice is highly optimistic. Ever since I tried to get an old PC's modem working with Linux back around 2000 I've known about the stubbornness of hardware vendors and their bad habit of keeping their driver code buried as if it was a bloody dagger with their fingerprints all over it. It takes a very courageous CEO of a hardware company to push the decision to go open source (or open specification), and I applaud any that do. I doubt the recent news will directly push any hardware companies into going open but it'd be a nice surprise if it did. As Mark Shuttleworth mentioned on the video interview about Ubuntu and Dell, when Linux became a bigger player in the server market, the hardware vendors took note and decided to start becoming more Linux friendly in the context of that market. I hope they'll do the same for the desktop market.

It's a hard one to predict, but this could certainly turn out to be a big turning point in the life of open source software and I'm excited about the future. I hope as many people who told Dell that they'd buy a PC with Linux pre-installed go out and buy one, to keep our end of the deal.