Pre-installing Linux

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

There’s been a tremendous level of interest in the fact that pre-installed Linux (in the form of Ubuntu | Fedora | OpenSuSE) is the #1 rated suggestion on Dell’s IdeaStorm. On the face of it, there is little question that Linux pre-installation is popular with customers. Why, then, is it so difficult to buy a PC in the US or Europe that has Linux (and ideally Linux alone) on the hard drive?

The devil, as always, lies in the details.

First, margins on PC’s are razor-thin.

This has two significant consequences. Most importantly, it means that Microsoft co-marketing funds are a substantial portion of the profit margins for many large PC retailers. Tweaking the nose of the giant might be fun but it’s risky. If Microsoft reduces the per-PC marketing contribution it makes for a particular reseller, that puts them at a huge financial disadvantage relative to their competitors. This means that one of the biggest issues a computer manufacturer or reseller faces in considering Linux pre-installations is the impact it will have on the Microsoft relationship, and hence bottom line.

Also, thin margins mean that any customer interaction or support call can blow away the profit not just on that sale, but on many others as well. The worst-case scenario is a customer who buys a computer at the lowest price off your website, assuming it’s a Windows machine, and then calls, infuriated, because it “won’t work with the game they are trying to install”. One customer who accidentally gets Linux without knowing what that means is an expensive proposition for a company that makes relatively little on the low-end product range. For this reason, I don’t think it makes any sense for Walmart to sell low-cost Linux PC’s, and we’ve never pushed US / European retailers to try pre-installing Ubuntu unless we think they can segment out the market which genuinely WANTS Linux from those that are just looking for a great deal on “a [windows] computer”.

Second, we free software fans are a fussy crowd, and very hard to please. You know what you are like – you sit and configure that Dell system down to the finest detail, you want a specific model of HP laptop, you want the one that has the Intel graphics chipset not the other chipset because you prefer the free driver approach from Intel… you are in short an expert, demanding customer. This means, that in order to reach us with Linux, a reseller has to offer Linux EVERYWHERE, not just on a few select models.

Worse, we are not “Linux” users, we are users who want version 6.06.1 of Ubuntu, or 10.2 of SuSE, or Fedora 6. We want a specific distro, and in many cases also a specific VERSION of that distro. In order to please us, the vendor has to offer an enormous matrix of possibilities – machine and distro/version.

This is an expensive proposition.

So, what can we do to help address the need?

First, we can help the vendors get more detailed insight into the real nature of demand. For example, here’s a survey being run by Dell that will I’m sure help inform their decisions about how they help you get Linux on Dell:

http://www.dell.com/linuxsurvey/

It would be great, of course, if those sorts of surveys were less vendor-specific, so that we could express our opinions once and have that counted across the whole industry, but there you have it. (It would also be great if Dell would consider Ubuntu to be both community- and commercially-supported, but that’s a different story ;-)).

Second, we can start looking at ways to change the model so that there’s a better fit between customer expectations and the economics of the industry. For example, if you’re one of the people who voted for Linux pre-installation on Dell IdeaStorm, would you be happy to receive a Dell box with no OS and with an Ubuntu disk in the box, which you yourself installed, with no support from Dell? What if it came with an assurance that the set of components you had configured *should* work, but no guarantee? Can we tweak the parameters to get to the point where you would be satisfied, and Dell could make a reasonable profit with only reasonable risk? Solve that, and I think we could all get one step closer to fixing Bug #1.

Addendum:

Of course, some resellers specialise in Linux pre-installations. My favourite of them is System76, who do a great range of laptops and desktops with, amongst others, Ubuntu preinstalled. Kudos to them for spotting the market and making the most of it.

185 Responses to “Pre-installing Linux”

  1. oblonski Says:

    I have been using linux for a couple of years now, but i still dual-boot with win xp because of photoshop (the whole wine, vmware, xen virtualization thing just don’t do it), I am a graphics designer and also do video editing

    i live high up in the mountains in south africa and have only irDA and mobile broadband to connect my P4 to the internet

    it is basically impossible to find any way of making those things work with the linux distro’s I’ve tried (kubuntu, pclinuxos, knoppix, mandriva, fedora)
    the nearest I got was when dmesg picked up the Sigmatel irDA dongle under pclinuxos 0.93a, but that was it, nothing I did could make the dongle pick up my mobile phone, and hence the experiment was shelved…

    most help I found online (from my windows with irDA and mobile broadband working) suggests connecting to some site and following the instructions there, which is sort of silly when you can’t get online in the first place (if I did not have win xp)

    so my point is: the average man in the street wants a computer that does what he intends to do with it and not having to have a degree in computer science or hassling techie friends to play his games, surf the internet or play his dvd’s and mp3’s without jumping through a thousand hoops

    at the moment linux still remains too much of a technical mystery for your average user and while many distro’s goes a long way toward closing that gap, let us face it, commercially it still has not got all of it’s lines memorized for the prime time show

    businesses are established to make profit, first and foremost, and wanting mainstream consumers to adopt a product that appeals mostly to ‘tech-savvy geeks’ and that involves a lot of effort to work properly, wont attract many customers and thus won’t make any business sense, even to the most zealous of fanboys

    the efforts by mark and canonical etc with ubuntu goes a long way to educate and inform the public, also the rest of the community and their efforts need to be commended, but I suppose it will take a Bill Gates-in-his-garage-that-made-pc’s-accesible-to-all-with-dos-that-ripped-off-cp/m-anyway to come up with a ‘generic’ linux distro that ‘just works’ out of the box with all the extra things that people need: i.e the whole dvd/mp3/game/hardware support thing just sorted out and working

    very much like linus came up with a working kernel for an open/free version of unix while hurd was still ‘under development’ and from there the whole linux/free-unix ecosystem evolved into what we have today

    anyways, one can always entertain high hopes, can’t one?

    and in an infinite universe, with infinite possibilities…

  2. FreeSoftNews » Blog Archive » Ubuntu Weekly News: Issue #32 Says:

    […] Ed Moltzen blogs about Mark Shuttleworth’s [http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/100 post], which discusses issues and solutions arising from widespread interest of pre-installed Linux in Dell’s [http://www.dellideastorm.com/ IdeaStorm]. Read the post: http://www.crn.com/software/198000735 […]

  3. FreeSoftNews » Blog Archive » Ubuntu Weekly News: Issue #32 Says:

    […] Ed Moltzen blogs about Mark Shuttleworth’s [http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/100 post], which discusses issues and solutions arising from widespread interest of pre-installed Linux in Dell’s [http://www.dellideastorm.com/ IdeaStorm]. Read the post: http://www.crn.com/software/198000735 […]

  4. Dennis Mitchel Says:

    It’s very nice to see that work is being done to get Linux more mainstream but what will we be doing with these machines. I have the limited perception out of the eyes of a gamer. When I can run games natively on Linux, I will move over. The work to get Linux from Hobby to professional is to get applications to work, hassle free and natively on Linux.

    From my point, when I mean games I mean games like Oblivion, Supreme Commander. These are some of the more recent games and only available for Windows. If the Linux community cannot get software companies to publish Linux copies of their software (with the necessary support and patching) why would one step over?

    Make no mistake, even if my comment seems to make me a Windows follower, I am not. I would rather take the step to Linux.

  5. Dell and Linux, Chocolate or Vanilla? « Tuxicity’s source Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth: “Worse, we are not “Linux” users, we are users who want version 6.06.1 of Ubuntu, or 10.2 of SuSE, or Fedora 6. We want a specific distro, and in many cases also a specific VERSION of that distro.” […]

  6. Il blog di Guido Arata: diffusione-del-sapere-informatico: news-exploit-bug-sicurezza-informatica-programmazione Says:

    […] Inoltre, sempre sul suo blog, si è espresso riguardo il discorso di avere Linux preinstallato sui PC. Per i non anglofoni, sul Blog Ubuntista è presente una traduzione del suo post. […]

  7. Gostak Says:

    You need to provide a little more than a CD and drivers that should work. The reason is as follows. The manufacturer of the computer is in the unique position of deciding what hardware is in the box off the shelf. Making that decision, the vendor can know without question if an open source driver exists for the hardware. Further, the vendor should provide a package that can make use of the hardware on the machine. It does not make sense to sell a machine with a particular piece of hardware if the software to run on the machine can not use that hardware. Either provide the compatible driver or use different hardware. If you can’t get a driver for a requested piece of hardware, then you simply say that combination is not available. I’d hate to say how many times I’ve attempted to load software on a computer that will not function with a newer machine, but if I go back to a machine with the old os, the software works just great!

  8. Bruno DUVAL Says:

    I was interested in trying Linux. I bought a magazine with Mandriva. But to get the WIFI working I had to paid and I wanted to try it first. I didn’t like it.
    Then I have searched the Internet for advice and I came across Ubuntu as a hot recommendation.
    I have installed UBUNTU a few weeks ago on a 5 years old computer and I am in love with the system. I have also downloaded Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Xubuntu and a gamer edition, and I like very much the fact that you can offer tailor made distribution to fit specific needs.
    I love UBUNTU so much that looking for a new start ( I have been a marketing manager for medical devices for the last 19 years and I have had enough) I am seriously considering a similar project as SYSTEM 76 for the french market with a small range of products to start with.
    Offering training on one hand (people wouldn’t have to pay for the system but for a training to try it and get used to it) and custom made distribution and set up for a “ready to use PC” may help to get UBUNTU better known.

    In any case it really deserves it.
    (and please excuse my English)

  9. Jos Plompen Says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thnx for this clear and educating comment.
    I think it is time for some out-of-the-box thinking (no pun intented).
    Actually, it is time that you and Richard Branson get together.
    Why Branson? Well, he is the one business man in this world that has the habit and proven track record to turn business models upside down. He loves to take on the “powers that are”. He fought the record labels, he fought BA, he fought Pepsi and Coca and so forth. And…he succeeded!
    Make him a proposition to build Virgin Ubuntu computers that will compete with Microsoft and Apple and win this battles. I think he must be sensitive for the fact that all this comes from what computer users actually want, he loves the rebels.
    You might have to take a hurdle though. Branson is also a lover of space travel, except… he choose Ballmer as his “co-pilot”. 😉 Well, all men are entitled to make one mistake in their life.
    So, go for it. And of course, I am would be more than willing to stand by you on this.

    BTW, thank you for Ubuntu

  10. Pre-installed Linux « technonerd.wordpress.com Says:

    […] Pre-installed Linux Ubuntu’s Mark Shuttleworth on pre-installing Linux. […]

  11. Glo Says:

    Mark,
    Your article makes good points. Many of the comments are well reasoned and informative, especially those about “co-marketing”, kickbacks (commissions) for the test drive add ons. These comments, if true, degrade your argument on “razor thin margins”.

    Now, that said, what do I want from the major retailers?

    I want a machine (laptop in my case) that is guaranteed not to have any hardware in it for which I cannot get an open source driver. Period. Full stop. Now, that’s just me: a reasonably experienced techie with more than a few years experience dealing with Linux.

    What does the market need that might be palatable to the major makers of PC computers? Given the number of distributions and combinations of hardware, add ons and the like, maybe the answer is just as I said above. Keep the hardware open so that getting it to work is not a nightmare or impossible.

    Better still is that one or more vendors tell the Linux packagers, such as Ubuntu, exactly what components are going into their retail offerings so that some advance planning (Ha!) can be done by the packagers. Now, does this put the other packagers at a small disadvantage? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Know to run Ubuntu 6.10 outta the box would be nice to know for a Toshiba P105-S61xx. Even if I had to pay the Microsoft tax.

    BTW isn’t that tie-in-sales sh*t against the terms of that anti trust settlement?

  12. Ubuntu preloaded - business factors « Feeding the Penguins Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth wrote in Pre-installing Linux, First, margins on PC’s are razor-thin. […]

  13. Ubuntu | Morgan Collett: Ubuntu preloaded - business factors Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth wrote in Pre-installing Linux, First, margins on PC’s are razor-thin. […]

  14. Robert Vogel Says:

    Consumers should be more assertive in the products that they demand. If we are to get robust appliances that are interoperable, open to enhancement, auditable, secure, and of verifiable high quality here’s what is necessary:

    http://www.freeappliances.org/

  15. dave Says:

    Wow, I’m late to the discussion…..with so many comments I’m not sure if anyone has offered the followng sentiment, but here goes…

    Personally, I’d be pretty happy if Dell were to offer ANY distro preinstalled. This is because I already rip the OS out and install my preferred distro. Except, as it stands, I need to worry about the hardware being incompatible with Linux. Dell needn’t care whether or not the Linux kernel supports the wireless chipset, or if a laptop reliably suspends. Windows is the only supported OS.

    Even if Dell were to only support RH or SLED, I’d reap the benefits even if I’m running Ubuntu. The kernel is the important bit.

    You make some solid, important points, but I think you’re slightly off here. I would prefer a real working machine, not a CD in a box with a hearty “Good luck!”. We woudn’t be much better off in your scenario. But again, if the hardware works with Dell’s implementation of Fedora (or what have you), it will work with whichever distro ultimately ends up being installed.

  16. The Liberator Reloaded Says:

    […] ADDENDUM: via Mark Shuttleworth, I find out that the Dell systems will have a choice of Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSUSE.  I honestly didn’t know that when I made my predictions (believe that if you will). […]

  17. The Liberator Reloaded Says:

    […] ADDENDUM: via Mark Shuttleworth, I find out that the Dell systems will have a choice of Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSUSE. I honestly didn’t know that when I made my predictions (believe that if you will). […]

  18. Dell Breaks the Mold at OpenRadix.org Says:

    […] The executive team at Dell has obviously realized this because of the potentially risky steps they’ve been taking. Microsoft can’t be happy that Dell won’t be exclusively Windows anymore. Also, as Mark Shuttleworth pointed out, it could potentially cost a lot of money to provide support another OS. These hesitations have both been taken care of. Dell doesn’t care as much about Microsoft anymore because the customers don’t care about Microsoft as much anymore. Also, Dell’s given information about their support plan for Linux: they wont support it. […]

  19. Command Line Warriors » Blog Archive » Three types of Linux computer Says:

    […] Today, I read an article that Mark Shuttleworth recently wrote called Pre-installing Linux. He argues that there are two issues holding back supply of GNU/Linux desktops (from here on Linux=GNU/Linux). The first is that the economics of selling PCs is bound heavily up with Microsoft as the monopoly supplier, I agree with him here. […]

  20. Fadli Says:

    Always in my head, I did not expect Dell or any vendor to bring Linux along with their machine but I expect their delivered machine is hardware compatible with Linux. No more headache of installing appropriate drivers and applications. Make it plug and play with Linux too.

  21. Susan Says:

    interesting….

    “When large businesses buy new PCs, they often wipe the hard drives clean and
    install a fresh copy of Windows, along with the other software they want workers to have…”

    http://news.zdnet.com/2100-3513_22-6179323.html?part=rss&tag=feed&subj=zdnn

  22. How people get moved by the word "Proprietary" « Says:

    […] Here is a nice post of Mark Shuttleworth explaining some of the factors why its so difficult to buy a Pre-installed Linux PC […]

  23. Leonardo Fontenelle » Blog Archive » Dell anuncia que venderá computadores com Ubuntu Says:

    […] Muitos dizem que o mercado para Linux é pequeno, mas quando a Dell perguntou aos seus clientes o que eles queriam, a demanda por Linux foi “esmagadora”, para citar o site da empresa. Michael Dell experimentou o Ubuntu com Firefox, OpenOffice.org e Evolution, e o resto é história. […]

  24. A dorfunteca » Unindo os puntos entre Dell e Canonical Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth é o fundador de Canonical e pese a que só se atopou unha vez con Michael Dell nun evento de Microsoft (sic), ten as ideas bastante claras sobre as posibles relacións que puidera ter co fabricante de ordenadores. […]

  25. Caida Cabello Says:

    All we have to wait now is to see the final release of Beryl. Regular people is asking for more “user friendly” interfaces/Os. Let’s see what happens with it!

  26. TBdO » Brendan » Revelation » Blog Archive » Here Be Dragons Says:

    […] sure she wouldn’t feel comfortable installing Windows herself, either, which illustrates why pre-installed Linux is such an important issue. At present, being able to use Linux has as a tacit prerequisite of […]

  27. 三洋伺服 Says:

    Here is a nice post of Mark Shuttleworth explaining some of the factors why its so difficult to buy a Pre-installed Linux PC

  28. maccabi Says:

    Hi mark,
    After reading your blog & most of the responses I hope i can add a bit of useful input into the discussion.
    I recently installed Ubuntu – dual boot XP – in order get the taste of Linux.
    I did it as a response to the ridiculous behavior of HP to my asking to get their new notebook with XP instead of Vista, as my research revealed that Vista is too heavy on the basic notebook configuration.
    My asking was replied with a big NO. from their P.O.V I have to use Vista.
    NO WAY.
    At this point I have to give credit where it’s due, and admit that Microsoft did standardize the PC interface so now every user can operate the thing quite intuitively. you can argue that it’s not always for the better, and I can add that they made some very heavy money in the process, but this is something any operating system must take into account.
    I will repeat in short what was written here – adding that I use PC from the DOS era, but still wants:
    An operating system with no fuss, in which I can first & foremost connect to the net via WIFI, display my web pages with all the standard plug-ins, movie, sound, flash ecs. listen to any format of sound. watch any format of movie. display & edit my picture and video. have Open Office. connect to Palm, and if you’re nice Pocket PC. burn Cd’s & DVDs
    And I AM WILLING TO PAY FOR IT as long as the distributor is capable of giving me that with a bit of support, and probably, so are many more who are fed up with Microsoft greedy fingers.
    Now to my ideas – some where suggested by other as well.
    Canonical should assemble a line of both notebook & media computer based on Ubuntu.
    Buy the components form manufactures that have the right drivers for the OS. I’ve heard of Dell & Lenovo selling Ubuntu ready notebooks. they must be able to do all that I mentioned above, as well as Asus Eee which is my favorite.
    Connecting to the net and providing some kind of a diagnostic tool to check the hardware so it installs any additional software to make the system work smoothly is also a must.
    The timing is right, the market is ripe, we are all waiting for the substitute.
    Liked the idea about Richard Branson.
    Good luck.

  29. Tomasz Gorski Says:

    Personally, I’d be pretty happy if Dell were to offer ANY distro preinstalled. This is because I already rip the OS out and install my preferred distro. Except, as it stands, I need to worry about the hardware being incompatible with Linux. Dell needn’t care whether or not the Linux kernel supports the wireless chipset, or if a laptop reliably suspends. Windows is the only supported OS

  30. Jose_X Says:

    Moulinneuf:

    Your can of corn example is off the mark. Percentages are what matter most. I buy loads of cans of food yearly but less than one PC during that time.

    Your estimates for what Dell makes on crapware might be too high.

    I think Dell fell from grace with Microsoft and Intel, but I could be wrong. If they did, it explains why they are taking the “risks” with Linux.

    Some more things to consider:

    With Linux, Dell is in the driver’s seat not Microsoft. Microsoft will have to pay to get their crippled trial versions of officeware, their browsers, etc, onto Dell PC’s. Meanwhile Dell will take the lead over slow OEMs as they bundle DeLinux with DeLoffice and anything else they want. Dell will gain significantly in their balance of trade with Microsoft. And Dell will have deals with other vendors opened up to them that in the past Microsoft would frown upon. Also, over time, there will be plenty of crapware for Linux and other more interesting bundling. With improved technology, Dell might even have a system where they can afford to sell real estate space on the PC in a local fashion to tap into small businesses that only want limited coverage.

    I think Dell is using the Linux faithful to fund their investments in Linux to get it to a level where they feel comfortable selling it to ma and pa. Dell is a newbie of sorts and they have a lot of tweaking to do and infrastructure to set up. By getting a jump on everyone else, they get the most beta testers plus the extra pocket change.

    To the many others that want a bare PC:

    Why does Dell care about installing Linux instead of just a certificate? Read the above. Dell has tremendous opportunities by seizing more control over the OS. How can they tap into most of the revenue streams with a bare PC? How can they provide their exclusive value services without an OS? Please.

  31. Top Linux News » Shuttleworth on pre-installing Linux Says:

    […] read more | digg story […]

  32. wren Says:

    Hi Mark,

    few days ago I tried Innotek’s VirtualBox fantastic Seamless Windowing Mode. I’m still busy to get it running on my Ubuntu machine.
    But take a look at following use case:

    Berta needs new Computer. She goes to the local computer dealer and checks what is available on the (consumer) market. Whats this? Why this Computer is 50 EUR cheaper than the same one nearby? There is a endless presentation movie running on the Computer.

    Ad text
    =======

    An Tux mascott tells:

    Hi, how are are? My name is Tux. This machine is running Ubuntu Linux. You have ever heard about? No? It’s the basic software translating one & zero numbers to the computer. So, i.e. you are moving the mouse Ubuntu Linux is translating this to zero & one numbers. Sounds difficult, isn’t it? No worries! Ubuntu is doing this hidden for you perfectly. You don’t have to operate the light switches yourself. Concentrate on what you really want: surfing on the Internet, writing office documents, online gaming and more. You know what I’m talking about. Wanna using your good old applications on your new computer machine? No, problem. We can arrange this for you. You only need this old operating system CD-ROM you got delivered with your old computer. Just take a look.

    If you start up the computer you are in front of you will see following:

    [captured first time Ubuntu boot up]

    [Ubuntu Welcome screen]

    [Ubuntu first time user dialog. The (Innotek setup wizard pops up)]

    Welcome on board. If you wanna use the applications from your old computer please insert the installation CD-ROM you got delivered with your old computer and press “Next” “Abort”.

    [User inserts the CD-ROM]

    [Innotek setup wizard: Thank you. I regognized a Microsoft Windows 98 setup installation media. Now, Ubuntu will create a such called virtual machine using the Innotek VirtualBox seamless windowing mode. By the end you will be capable to start your OLD applications on your NEW computer. Just take a look how you can work with this (-> short Innotek VirtualBox seamless windowing mode presentation with a Internet browser, Office app and so on)]

    [next]

    Canonical takes no responsibility for the proper working of the Microsoft Windows 98 setup and the application you will install into this Virtual Machine.

    [ ] I don’t accept. This will abort the virtual machines setup. You can repeat this setup later again using application > virtual machine > Innotek Virtual Box set up

    [X] I accept. You will find your migrated application using the application > migrated systems > MS Windows 98

    Ubuntu Linux – You don’t have to operate the switches yourself!

    The Virtual Machine will be set up and the Gnome desktop launches.

    The end.

    😀

    regards,

  33. Mark Shuttleworth tackles Linux on commodity PCs | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] Shuttleworth, the financier behind Ubuntu (thanks Mark!) tackles the problem of Linux in a recent blog post. He points out that profit margins are very low on these products, and that co-marketing funds from […]

  34. More on the Linux/Dell Thing « Crooked Spoke Says:

    […] via Mark Shuttleworth, I find out that the Dell systems will have a choice of Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSUSE. I honestly […]

  35. AndyB » Pre-installing Linux Says:

    […] new Dell IdeaStorm site: Pre-installing Linux on retail machines. Today Mark Shuttleworth wrote an article on the difficulties/reasons Dell, and other resellers, may not want to Pre-install Linux. I feel a […]