Dell is warming up to the idea of reintroducing Linux desktops and notebooks, but for now the computer maker plans to remain on the sidelines and wait until there's a clear winner among the various distributions of the open source operating system.
An indicator that Dell is watching the market closely is the recent certification of its Optiplex desktops, Latitude notebooks, and Precision workstations for Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. Certification for the three business product lines means the computers can be bought without an operating system and customers can load SUSE Linux with confidence that the OS will work.
Dell currently sells Precision workstations with the option of having Red Hat Linux preinstalled. The high-end computers are used to run industrial applications, such as those used by designers in manufacturing, or in the making of animation or movies. Dell has not offered a mainstream computer with Linux since 2001.
Dell knows that there's a demand among enthusiasts for pre-installation of Linux, which has been the top request on the company's online sounding board IdeaStorm since its launch a couple of weeks ago. While showing some demand for Linux-driven computers, IdeaStorm also shows the downside of the potential market: Everyone wants their own favorite version. On Tuesday, people on the site were asking for computers with various Linux distributions including Canonical's Ubuntu, Red Hat's Fedora, and Novell's openSUSE. Customers are also asking for Multiboot, an open source specification that makes it possible to use one boot mechanism for multiple operating systems.
"The opportunity we see for the Linux community is to drive the market and the industry toward one or two standard distributions for desktops and notebooks," Dell spokesman Jeremy Bolen says. "What we don't want to do is pick one distribution and alienate users of another distribution."
For Dell, introducing an operating system on its computers is no small task. The company needs to perform a battery of tests regularly to ensure that the OS and upgrades work properly. In addition, sales and support staff have to be trained for the platform. "If we were to offer Linux on clients, we want to make sure we give customers the best experience," Bolen said.
Nevertheless, if the market rallies around a couple of Linux distributions, and Dell sees a strong enough demand to make a profit, then the company's ready to go. "We're not ruling out anything for the future," Bolen says. "We're looking for a clear customer preference."