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Preloaded Linux on Dell: Fact or Fiction?

Reporter's Notebook: Having Linux preloaded on PCs from major vendors is a dream many in the Linux community have had for a long time.

Preloaded Linux from a major hardware vendor is a great idea, but despite the rumors and constant talk swirling about the issue, I don't believe it will happen in the way that many would like.

The most recent talk of the preloaded Linux PC is the result of a poll Dell ran on its IdeaStorm Web site asking what users want from the besieged hardware vendor. More than 90,000 thousand respondents asked for it.

Dell in turn said it intends to work with Novell to certify corporate client products for Linux, including OptiPlex desktops, Latitude notebooks and Dell Precision workstations. But you'll have to forgive my pessimism, as it's a story I've heard many times before.

Sure Dell is one of the leading vendors of Linux, but its attention is on Linux for the enterprise, focusing on servers as opposed to workstations or consumer desktops. It has offered optimized solutions for Linux deployments and even participated in Linuxworld Boston.

The closest it comes to flirting with consumers is with its N-Series computers, which are not even all that consumer-focused and don't come preloaded with Windows. Instead they include FreeDOS, the idea being that users can load their own flavor of Linux. N-Series machines are also offered with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Workstation edition pre-installed.

But the preloaded Linux on PC talk isn't only about Dell. Neither HP nor IBM/Lenovo preload Linux on their consumer PCs, though at various points over the last six or seven years all three companies have had stories or rumors swirling about them that pre-loaded Linux PCs were coming soon.

They have made significant Linux efforts for the enterprise and are involved in the Linux community in varying degrees. So why hasn't Linux appeared pre-loaded on PCs yet? It's simple: demand and dollars.

The basics of business

Dell, HP and IBM/Lenovo are in the volume hardware business, which is what the consumer market is about. None of the big three vendors will push goods they can't sell and support in large volumes. And they likely still don't consider the demand for pre-loaded Linux PCs high enough to try and meet.

As the Dell IdeaStorm site proves, the Linux community is a vocal one, so the call for pre-loaded Linux is growing louder. But the reality is that Linux aficionados can easily just download and install any number of Linux distributions they choose on any hardware they choose without cost.

It's providing support for these choices combined with the fact that those needing support would likely be Linux newcomers that raises a potentially huge barrier for vendors.

That's not to say that it can't be done. HP is proving it can make money from supporting Debian, which is something that no other major hardware vendor has been able to do.

The other issue with pre-loaded Linux comes down to money. Not in terms of money that the vendors might be able to make from Linux but money that they wouldn't get from Microsoft .

The software giant has a huge co-marketing budget for partners that advertise Microsoft products alongside their own. So when you see a Dell advertisement that includes a nice Windows Vista branded blurb, it's likely that Microsoft has helped pay for the ad.

Currently there is no Linux vendor with the financial wherewithal or consumer focus that can or will provide the big hardware vendors with that type of co-marketing cash pool.

Can it -- will it -- happen?

If the big hardware vendors are able to create their own support groups for a community Linux, they can in essence almost have their own operating system. Dell might "adopt" or sponsor the Gentoo Linux distribution and create a community of support for it. Then it would be Dell pushing out the Dell Gentoo Linux version with Dell's own dollars for a Dell co-branded solution.

The other option would be for an industry consortium, the Linux Foundation for example, to create a pool of co-marketing dollars that would help to entice the hardware vendors to offer pre-installed Linux options.

There is a lot of money to be made by hardware vendors offering preloaded Linux. If the vendor goes the community route, margins can be much higher by selling Linux than by selling Microsoft.

If a support organization can be created, the hardware vendor can also service the customer better instead of having to rely on a third party like Microsoft.

So far the preloaded Linux PC has been more myth than reality. Let's hope that Dell's new effort can move beyond that and create a real market opportunity for Linux on consumer PCs.

Sean Michael Kerner is senior editor of internetnews.com.