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3/30/2007
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Dell's March To Linux PCs Won't Be A Walk In The Park

Drivers that already ship with the Linux kernel, such as those for storage, wired networking, power management, and USB ports, won't be a problem, but others will.

In preinstalling Linux on consumer PCs, Dell's biggest challenge will be in finding a full set of open source drivers for the hardware that will run with the new machines, the software architect on the project said Friday.

The computer maker on Thursday said that it would offer the open source operating system in desktops and notebooks following strong customer demand for the machines on the company's online sounding board IdeaStorm. Besides committing to making and selling the machines, Dell has released few other details.

Matt Domsch, Linux software architect for Dell, said in an interview Friday that the company is talking with suppliers to find out if they would be willing to provide open source drivers, if one doesn't already exist. "It's not a relationship challenge, it's how quickly can we do it challenge," Domsch told InformationWeek.

While Dell has yet to release a timetable for releasing the new products, the goal is to get them out as soon as possible. As a result there will be compromises. "This is a phase-in approach," Domsch said. "We're not going to go out the door with platforms [hardware] and peripherals all at once."

At least half of the Linux fans who participated in an IdeaStorm survey, said they wanted Dell to ship free, open source software with the operating system, and drivers available under the GNU General Public License, which also covers Linux. That, however, won't be possible in all cases.

Dell has yet to reveal which software vendor's version of Linux it plans to ship with the machines, but has said it's committed to using open source drivers whenever possible. Drivers that already ship with the Linux kernel, such as those for storage, wired networking, power management, and USB ports, won't be a problem. In cases where there's a choice between proprietary and open source, such as in wireless network adapters and printers, Dell said it will go with the latter. There will be exceptions, however, such as 3-D drivers for video cards, which Dell has decided to provide proprietary versions. In those cases, Domsch said it comes down to what works best.

In cases where open source drivers don't exist, such as software-based modems, Dell will turn to the proprietary offerings. "Our goal for all of this is to not have Dell-specific drivers," Domsch said. "We want the same driver to be used all over the world."

The reason for that is support. Dell has not said whether it will offer hardware-only support with the Linux PCs, but is quick to point out how much Linux support is available online through the open source community. Dell, which sells pre-installed Linux workstations and servers, has on its site forums for system administrators, as well as for Linux hobbyists. "We already have different forms of communities listed, and we would expect to continue with those in whatever we have for new offerings," Domsch said.

Providing support is not expected to be a major problem for Dell, because people buying the machines are expected to be techies who won't need their hands held. "A Linux user is a techie; a Windows end user is not always a techie, so it's unlikely the support cost is going to have any significant impact on Dell," said Sam Bhavnani, an analyst for Current Analysis. "If consumers were to buy preinstalled Linux, then Dell would be in for some really serious support headaches."

The fact is very few Linux desktops and notebooks are sold each year, and that's not expected to change with Dell entering the market, Bhavnani said. "Linux on the desktop for consumers is still a ways away."

What's most significant about Dell's Linux strategy, according to some analysts, is that it shows the company is going back to listening to customers. Dell has hit on hard times recently, losing enough market share last year to make analysts wonder whether it could hold on to its No. 1 PC maker crown against its main rival Hewlett-Packard.

Launching a Linux product based on customer demand shows Dell is listening to buyers again, said Richard Shim, an analyst for IDC. "They don't know where the dollars are [with Linux], but they're going to trust that the effort to increase responsiveness to customers is going to lead to future success."

Though Dell has committed to Red Hat and SUSE Linux for its servers, offering two Linux distributions is possible, but would cost money, Domsch pointed out. "It's not twice as much work to do two distributions, but its not zero work either," he said.

As to whether offering Linux on consumer PCs would hurt Dell's longstanding relationship with Microsoft, a company spokesman said no. "The relationship is very strong, and we don't see it having any bearing on the relationship."

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