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4/5/2007
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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 finding a full set of open source drivers for the hardware that will run with the new machines, says Dell's software architect on the project.

The computer maker will 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.

Dell has a lot of details to finalize, including when it will start offering Linux consumer PCs, which versions of Linux it will ship, and how much support it will offer.

But Matt Domsch, Linux software architect for Dell, says the company is working on the details, including asking suppliers if they can provide open source drivers if one doesn't exist. "It's not a relationship challenge, it's a 'How quickly can we do it?' challenge," Domsch says. Dell has announced it's committed to using open source drivers where possible but will use proprietary ones if they work better or open source versions don't exist.

"Our goal for all of this is to not have Dell-specific drivers," Domsch says. "We want the same driver to be used all over the world." The reason is support. Dell hasn't said whether it will offer hardware-only support with the Linux PCs.

But Dell doesn't expect major problems providing support because people buying the machines likely will be techies who won't need much hand-holding. If that shifts, though, it could spell trouble. "If consumers were to buy preinstalled Linux," says Sam Bhavnani, an analyst for Current Analysis, "then Dell would be in for some really serious support headaches."

What's most significant about the decision to offer Linux-based PCs isn't the initial volume, it's that it shows Dell is listening to buyers again, says Richard Shim, an IDC analyst. Dell lost enough market share last year that its position as the No. 1 PC maker is threatened by its main rival, Hewlett-Packard. Dell doesn't know what sales will result from the Linux move, "but they're going to trust that the effort to increase responsiveness to customers is going to lead to future success," Shim says.

Dell offers Red Hat and SUSE Linux for servers, and offering two Linux distributions is possible, but cost is a factor, Domsch says. "It's not twice as much work to do two distributions," he adds, "but it's not zero work either."

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