Is Linux its own worst enemy when it comes to gaining converts on the desktop? That's what I said in a recent post, in reference to Dell's impending release of systems equipped with Ubuntu Linux. And, boy, did I get an earful of reader comments. This time, I've got another beef: Now that Dell has formally announced the machines, the Dell page offering the Ubuntu boxes for sale (here) doesn't contain the same clear caveats about the potential unavailability of some Windows-related multimedia drivers, which Dell previously had explicitly noted in an earlier post on its customer blog page.It's pretty clear that there's nothing intentionally bad going on here. Rather, it seems like a natural oversight amid what was probably an understandable attempt by Dell to make its Ubuntu page as simple to understand as possible.
Still, some important "warnings" seem to have gotten lost in translation. For example, here's the salient paragraph from the Dell Ubuntu page under the section entitled "What Is Open Source?"
"An advantage of open source is that it can deliver more reliability and flexibility, as well as faster updates and fixes, all at a lower cost. Plus, if you're an expert, you can tweak and alter the code to completely customize the software to do exactly what you want. A downside is that some open source software requires intermediate or advanced knowledge to use, and in the case of operating systems, may not be compatible with the same software applications and hardware as Windows operating systems."
Now here's the money quote from the Dell2Dell blog page, on the technical details of Dell's Ubuntu offering:
"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."
This strikes me as a much clearer notice, and one which the less sophisticated among Dell's customers would be well served by seeing. I'm particularly concerned about those who might purchase the Ubuntu boxes with the expectation that they'll be able to listen to all their music files and watch their complete video libraries right out of the box, without having to do some serious tweaking.
Of course, those familiar with Linux know that drivers which support proprietary multimedia formats such as the various Windows Media file types, and Quicktime, are not always easy to come by. True, this isn't the fault of the Linux fanboys. It stems from the historical reluctance of the owners of these formats (Microsoft, in the case of Windows Media) who haven't exactly rushed to embrace Linux.
However, the fact that there's a valid reason for the difficulty in obtaining some drivers should not be an end user's problem. (Not a casual end user that you expect to capture as a Linux customer.) Much like it's not a customer's problem if Windows doesn't do everything it's supposed to correctly, which is why Microsoft makes darn sure to regularly issue service packs.
By the way, Dell adds some flavor to their original explanation in a new Dell2Dell blog post put up on Thursday by Lionel Menchaca, digital media manager at the PC maker.
"Hardware support will come from Dell. Beyond that, users can turn to the Linux section of the Dell Community Forum for help and also get the latest updates from our Linux team at http://linux.dell.com. Users also have fee-based options for operating system support through Canonical, including 30-day Get Started, One-year Basic and One-year Standard.
"As John [Hull, Dell Linux OS manager] said in his post, earlier this week, initially we will offer a subset of the component options we support on the three systems. We will continue to work with vendors to improve the stability of the associated Linux drivers moving forward. That's part of our longer-term goal to increase the number of drivers that work at the kernel level-something Direct2Dell readers made very clear. We'll get there, it just takes time."
So, in recommending that Dell correct its mild oversight, and put this kind of detailed explanation up on the page where Dell Ubuntu customers are likely to see it, I also have to revise my original criticism:
I still believe the Linux faithful can't see the forest for the trees, and their nitpicking criticism of my Wed post, where many commenters were essentially saying, "Hey, there's no problem, users can get the drivers themselves," misses the mark. Indeed, I think if Linux's longtime supporters had a little more of the realism of Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, Linux would have more than its paltry single-digit share of the desktop operating-system market.
On the other hand, Dell could be about to become the best friend Linux on the desktop ever had.