Dell to offer Ubuntu Linux on PCs, laptops

Pricing, configurations and support options will be unveiled later

Only 10 weeks after asking customers what products they'd like to see, Dell Inc. today announced that its upcoming Linux desktop PCs and laptops will be preloaded with Ubuntu Linux. They are slated to be avilable by the end of this month.

In postings on Dell's IdeaStorm and Dell2Dell Web sites today, the company said it moved quickly to offer the Linux-based hardware because of customer interest. In February, Dell had set up an "IdeaStorm" Web site to get feedback from customers about what products they wanted. In late March, after hearing from more than 100,000 users who filled out surveys on Linux preferences, Dell said it would start preloading Linux on some of its laptops and desktop PCs.

"The reason we're going with Ubuntu is because by far and away Ubuntu was the most requested distribution" by users who registered their preferences on the IdeaStorm site, said Jeremy Bolen, a Dell spokesman. "It was overwhelming, the response we got to the survey."

Bolen said that the models, configurations and prices of the Ubuntu-loaded hardware have not been announced. They will run Version 7.04 of Ubuntu Linux and will be available through a dedicated Linux Web page on the site where buyers will be able to configure and price their machines.

Asked if the new machines will be cheaper than comparable machines loaded with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista operating system, Bolen said, "I don't have a solid answer for that."

He also left open the possibility that other Linux distributions such as Red Hat Inc. or Novell Inc.'s SUSE Linux could later be added to Dell's Linux line. The company will "continue to take feedback from our customers and implement meaningful offerings that meet their needs," Bolen said.

Details are also being worked out regarding suport for the new Ubuntu Linux-equipped machines, he said. Hardware support will be provided by Dell, but operating system support could be provided through the open-source Ubuntu and Linux communities -- which survey respondents said they preferred -- or through a paid support contract with Canonical Ltd., the Isle of Man-based company that is the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu Linux. "Certainly, the option is open for paid support," Bolen said. "We're still kind of working through the mechanics of that."

Bolen said the overwhelming response from Linux enthusiasts inspired Dell to move quickly. "In the past five years, there's been a lot of development in Linux to make it a viable option for our customers, especially our enthusiasts," he said. "The audience we're really going after ... at least initially is the Linux enthusiast."

Jane Silber, director of operations at Canonical, called the Dell-Ubuntu partnership "a very important milestone" for her company. "It's an important step in broadening access to Linux and Ubuntu," she said.

The partnership with Dell is Canonical/Ubuntu's first reseller deal with a top-tier system maker in the U.S., she said. Canonical does have a partnership with Sun Microsystems Inc., but that only includes precertifying some Sun servers for use with Ubuntu Linux. Sun does not offer hardware preloaded with Ubuntu Linux.

Canonical and Ubuntu do have existing preloading deals in other markets around the world, including a relationship with HCL Infosystems Ltd. in Noida, India, and the deal with Dell could "be the first of a string of relationships," Silber said. "The traction and momentum that Ubuntu has been building over the last few years makes Dell and Canonical feel that this is the right [time] to do this.

In the last few months, Dell CEO and chairman Michael Dell has himself gotten on the Ubuntu bandwagon. He recently revealed that he's been using Ubuntu Linux 7.04 on one of his home Dell Precision M90 laptops. His two other home computers, a travel laptop and his work PC all run Windows Vista Ultimate, according to the company.

Analysts said the deal could be good for both companies, even though previous attempts at launching a Linux-on-the-desktop movement never gained much steam. An earlier attempt by Dell to sell laptops with Red Hat Linux around 2001 didn't get much traction in the marketplace.

"If Dell wants to make a splash with this announcement, Ubuntu is definitely the right pick," said Tony Iams, an analyst at Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International Inc. "The market is definitely enamored with [Ubuntu]. If they're looking to open up a new market, Ubuntu is definitely the one to go with."

What's not certain, however, is how this latest Linux-loaded computer offering will pan out with consumers, Iams said. "You always have to be a little careful" with online marketing surveys such as the one conducted by Dell, he said. "But on the other hand, what is the real risk here? Customers always appreciate choice."

As its sales figures have decreased in recent years, Dell has said it would try new directions, Iams said. "As a small step to take, this is perfectly rational," he said.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said Dell has been forced to listen to consumers because its old ways of doing business haven't been working recently. "Dell was being the Henry Ford of the computer industry in the sense that you could have it any way you wanted it as long as it was [Dell's] way," Haff said. "They didn't want to do AMD processors, they didn't want to do retail [sales], and they didn't want to do Linux because all of these things were difficult for them to do. I think that Dell has realized that it's not in the position where it can give up all of these slices of market share, even if they're not [individually] going to be huge."

"Dell was kind of locking themselves out of the market," Haff said. "I think it was starting to hurt them."

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk in Denver, called today's Ubuntu announcement "a very interesting decision" that breaks with past attempts at marketing Linux machines that only offered Red Hat or SUSE Linux.

"Ubuntu has proved that there is a substantial appetite for Ubuntu on the desktop around the world, and it was only a matter of time until some big manufacturer took advantage of this," O'Grady said. "If basically the knock on Linux on the desktop has been that no major manufacturers support it, then this is the first major chink in that argument. I wouldn't be surprised if other major manufacturers try this, too."

Another analyst, Perry Donham at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc., said the deal is potentially bigger for Ubuntu than it is for Dell. "I don't think this is a huge win for Dell," he said. "It's going to be a small part of their market. But it's a great win for Ubuntu and for Linux in general."

For consumers who have heard of Linux, they'll see that Dell is offering it on machines and is backing it, and that may encourage them to seriously consider using the operating system for the first time, Donham said. "It can only be good for Ubuntu. Maybe people will want to try it out with the big hand of Dell behind their backs."

Such a scenario could help the open-source community work even harder at solving some of the remaining problems that keep Linux from being a first choice in the consumer marketplace, such as continuing incompatibilities and difficulties with running popular applications like Apple Inc.'s iTunes music software, Donham said. "It will also sharpen the focus for [creating needed] drivers and support for drivers," he said.

"Ubuntu is fabulously popular right now," Donham said. "They're really riding that wave. Ubuntu is the easiest Linux I've come across to set up and maintain. It kind of just launches and goes."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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