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Desktop Linux breakthrough: Lenovo preloads SUSE on ThinkPad


Finally. For years, the holy grail of the Linux desktop has been to get a major computer vendor to commit to preloading a Linux desktop. It finally happened.

On August 4th, we found out that Lenovo Group, the company that has taken over IBM’s Personal Computing Division, had made a deal with Novell Inc. to preload SLED 10 (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) on its ThinkPad T60p mobile workstation.

For the first time, a major OEM (original equipment manufacturer) has committed to preloading a Linux desktop.

For years, you could get preloaded Linux from smaller vendors. Linspire, MEPIS, and Xandros all have arrangements with second and third-tier OEMs to produce preloaded Linux PCs and laptops. If you were a big-time customer ordering hundreds of systems at a crack, you could also get a major OEM to preload Linux for you.

Over the years, HP has flirted with offering desktop Linux. For example, in 2004, it released the Compaq nx5000 laptop with SUSE Linux 9.1 as a “test” launch. Dell has slowly moved closer to offering a real Linux desktop, but it’s not there yet.

Of course, both HP and Dell will sell you a computer without an operating system, or with FreeDOS and their best recommendation for a Linux for that system, but that’s really not the same thing.

So, if you were just Joe User in North America, and you wanted to simply order or pick up at a store a brand-name computer with a brand-name Linux, you were out of luck.

That was then. This is now.

The T60p isn’t just any laptop. It boasts a high-end, 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor T2500, with a minimum of 512MB of RAM, which can be pushed up to 2GB of memory. For graphics, it uses an ATI FireGL V5200 with 256MB of RAM.

The system is also expected to come with what Lenovo is calling a “ThinkPad Experience” under Linux, which includes: Access Connections, Configuration Utility, Power Manager, warm and cold docking support for USB and video, and Help Center support.

Ironically, in June, Lenovo was in hot-water with Linux fans because an executive had said that the company would no longer support Linux on its ThinkPad line.

Lenovo quickly distanced itself from these comments. “Lenovo’s Linux strategy has not changed … compared to what the IBM Linux-related strategy, related to the PC environment, was,” said Marc Godin, Lenovo’s VP of marketing for notebooks at Lenovo in an eWEEK interview.

Godin then foreshadowed this day, “We’re about to reinforce that strategy and go beyond what IBM or Lenovo, until now, was doing in terms of its commitments to the Linux community ? and to our business partners who want to use Linux.”

In a way, it’s not a surprise at all. Lenovo has been playing second-fiddle to market-leaders Dell and HP for quite some time. Recently, it’s been making moves to improve its status as a top-tier player by becoming the first to offer an AMD processor-based desktop to the enterprise.

So, adding Linux to Lenovo’s offerings makes perfect sense.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: offering Linux as an OEM — big or small — is a smart move.

First, you automatically get a great deal of interest from a passionate, albeit small, group of desktop users. So, why would you want to bother, since Linux desktop users are only measured in single digits of the market?

Because, when everyone else is offering XP, you need to offer something different. If everyone is selling white bread, don’t you think offering whole wheat or raisin bread might earn you some loyal customers? In this case, loyal customers who will spread the word that you’re a good dealer?

From a user’s viewpoint, this move is great. They can finally just buy a fully-functioning Linux laptop, without worrying whether they need to install this to get the WiFi to work, or to download that to read an Adobe Acrobat document. The system will, or at least it should, be ready to work out of the box.

After all, Linux on the ThinkPad has long been supported first by IBM, and more recently, by Lenovo. In addition, the ThinkPad PC product line has probably had more specific Linux support than any other computer brand. In fact, one of the most useful Linux community sites, ThinkWiki, is devoted to nothing but Linux on the ThinkPad.

While we still don’t have all the details yet, some things I already know.

First, this is a major step forward for the Linux desktop. It may not be as big as when Corel introduced the first user-friendly Linux desktop — now Xandros — in 1999. But it’s big.

Second, I think this is a great move for both Lenovo and Novell. Both companies have been in the doldrums recently. Both needed to shake things up. And, this, this is a move that will shake up not just the Linux desktop market, but the desktop market as a whole.

I think that the Lenovo ThinkPad T60p mobile workstation will only be the first of many more mainstream Linux desktop systems. By itself, it may not look like much, but then so the one fateful snowflake which starts an avalanche.

A version of this story first appeared in Desktop Linux.

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