Dell's Ubuntu Offering Shows Why Linux Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Dell is moving full speed ahead with its rush to deliver Ubuntu Linux on a bunch of upcoming laptops and desktops, but there's a potential problem looming: Multimedia support on the machines may be spotty.
Dell is moving full speed ahead with its rush to deliver Ubuntu Linux on a bunch of upcoming laptops and desktops, but there's a potential problem looming: Multimedia support on the machines may be spotty.That word comes via a post on the Direct2Dell blog, from John Hull, Dell's manager of Linux OS Technologies. (Credit and thanks to eWeek blogger Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for first pointing to this post.)

Here's the money quote from Hull's "Ubuntu 7.04 Offering--Technical Details":

"At this time, we are not including any support for proprietary audio or video codecs that are not already distributed with Ubuntu 7.04. These include MPEG 1/2/3/4, WMA, WMV, DVD, Quicktime, etc. We are evaluating options for providing this support in the future."

Also, you might have to get yourself a new printer if you opt for the Dell Ubuntu offerings, 'cause the cheapy model you have at home might not work. Writes Hull: "We recommend Linux users buy Dell printers that have PostScript engines in them."

What's going on here? Unfortunately, we're seeing in action why Linux, which is the best operating system money can buy--because it's free--is also its own worst enemy. (Caveat: I'm talking about the desktop, aka client side, here. Of course, Linux is already in the "big time" on the server side.) The big problem is that the availability of Linux drivers, though nowhere near the crisis levels it was several years ago, is still spotty.

Say what you will about Windows, but it's rare that you install a peripheral and find out you can't get a driver. If the driver isn't already hidden in some .cab file, Windows will go out to the Internet and find it. Worst case, you have to go out to the vendor's support site and download it yourself. But it's very, very rare that you come up empty.

True, Vista has had driver issues. However, it's more a case of Vista drivers not working correctly (after all, they only had five years to get the darned thing ready) than it is a case of no one thinking to do the drivers in the first place.

I know, the Linux faithful will tell me that the driver(s) problem has been largely licked. If that's the case, why is it rearing its head in what amounts to the highest-profile market showcase Linux has had in a long time?

I also know that Ubuntu, unlike many other distros, has only been around for two and a half years. So what? In that short period of time, it's gotten more publicity than anything to do with Linux outside of Linus Torvalds himself. And if it's true that one shouldn't expect "volunteers" to be able to do drivers for anything, it's also true that PC users don't--and shouldn't have to--are. (The more pertinent question is: Why aren't peripherals vendors doing more to ensure the availability of Linux drivers? I guess you'd have to ask them, and maybe Microsoft. Though don't expect much in the way of answers.)

True, Dell is clearly putting forth its best effort to make a go of it with Ubuntu. As Hall's post puts it: "We configure/install open source drivers for hardware, when possible. We use partial open-source or closed source ("restricted" in Ubuntu terms) drivers where there is no equivalent open-source driver. This includes Intel wireless cards and Conexant modems."

Still, partial anything isn't the route to Linux laptop success. Think about it: This isn't Linspire putting its "look as much unlike Linux as you can so people will think it's some kind of Windows clone" version of Linux onto a bunch of cut-rate Wal-Mart machines. This is Dell.

As well, this isn't some determinedly anti-newbie version of Linux, like FreeBSD. [Update: As a number of readers pointed out to me, this is not a good example, since FreeBSD is not Linux-like, it's a Unix variant. Mea culpa-AW]

It's Ubuntu, which comes from the pretty much the most touchy-feely open-source community you can find.

'Cause if Ubuntu ain't ready for the big time, it makes you wonder if Linux will ever be.

P.S. Lest you get the impression I'm part of the problem and not the solution, here are a couple of interesting Linux driver resources.

  • Driver list, by manufacturer
  • O'Reilly's "Linux Device Drivers" (book)
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