Practical Technology

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Why the pre-loaded Linux Desktop is important


I will never cease to be amazed at how fast things change and how quickly people forget. Today’s example is a Slashdot posting with the title, “Why Buy a PC Preloaded with Linux?” Specifically, the dotter—slasher really doesn’t give the right tone—wants to know “‘Why should I buy a PC preloaded with Linux?’ They are more expensive, and it’s not hard just to reformat the PC with Linux. I hate paying the Microsoft Tax as much as anybody else, but if paying that ‘tax’ allows companies to reduce my price by bundling with my PC products that I will never use, why wouldn’t I just buy a Windows-loaded PC and reformat?”

Oh dear. Let’s start at the top. Sometimes Linux computers are more expensive than their otherwise identical brothers with XP. But, they’re not always more expensive. This kind of statement of ‘fact’ in a question always makes my FUD detector start to beep.

For example, the Dell Ubuntu Linux laptop I lust for the most is the Dell 1420N. Right now, May 27th 2008, the basic, no-frills model goes for $599. The same model with XP… oh! Wait! You won’t be able to get it, or any other computer, with XP after the next few weeks.

In fact, since the Dell 1420 currently comes with Vista Home Premium, you may not have the option of getting it with XP at all. You see Dell will only let you downgrade from Vista Business or Vista Ultimate to XP Pro. The cheaper XP Home? It really is well on its way to becoming history.

Even, if you ordered a Dell 1420 with Windows as fast as you can, the 1420 with the closest stats to the Ubuntu-powered 1420N—1GB of RAM; 14.1 inch display with 1280×800 resolution; Intel Pentium Dual Core 1.73GHz T2370 CPU; and 120GB hard-drive—will cost you, drum roll please, $649. Advantage: Linux.

So, first things first, Linux PCs may not be more expensive than Windows PCs. Let’s stomp this Microsoft-sponsored urban legend into the mud right now. Got it? Good.

Next, “It’s not hard just to reformat the PC with Linux.” Yes and no. I can install Linux on any PC even if I’m half-asleep. Many power-users can do the same. But, can most people install Linux on a PC? No, no they can’t.

That was the whole reason why getting Dell and other vendors like, to pre-install Linux was a big deal. People, who could never install Linux by themselves, no matter how easy you made it, could finally get to use Linux.

This isn’t just Linux though. How many people can actually install Vista? I mean, I work with operating systems for a living and it took me—no lie—16-months and SP1 before I could get Vista working properly. Note, I didn’t say well, I just said, ‘properly.’

Most people buy a computer with an operating system, and they’re probably more likely to have it stolen they are to change the operating system. In other words, if desktop Linux was to ever start moving it had to be pre-installed on the hardware.

OK, let’s say you can do it yourself. Should you? Well, if you already own a PC and want to upgrade it to Linux from Windows, of course, you should. I’ve updated over a hundred systems to one Linux or the other, and I was always able to get more work done more safely and for less money when I was done. With a score of PCs in my office the savings on anti-virus software alone isn’t small.

But, for a new machine, if you buy a Windows PC, you’re not only paying the Microsoft tax and helping the rich get richer; you’re telling the world that you prefer Windows. No one does accurate counts on Linux desktops. The closest we come to accurate desktop operating system surveys are probably those from IDC. And what does IDC measure? It measures, not what people use, but what people buy, on their PCs.

That’s why I can now predict that when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer start talking about Vista sales over this coming summer, he’s going to say how they really started picking up starting in July. He’ll be able to do that because after June 30th, it will officially become much harder to buy a PC with XP. Now, it appears most business buyers will actually be ‘buying’ Vista only to have their vendor switch them to XP Pro even before they leave the factory (, but Ballmer will be able to spin those numbers into making it look like Vista suddenly got a sales kick in the pants.

So, if you buy Windows, you’re not only putting money into Microsoft’s hands, you’re continuing the myth that Windows, especially Vista, sales are stronger than ever. If you buy Linux, though, you’re not only keeping money away from Microsoft, you’re telling OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), that you really do want Linux. And, if enough people do that, the OEMs will support Linux on more of their systems, their vendors will make drivers for Linux components, and the entire Linux desktop world will be the stronger for it.

If you like Linux, buy Linux. It’s that simple.


  1. Absolutely right. Boil it down to one paragraph and everywhere they talk about Linux will quote this.

    Put your money where your heart is.

    If Microsoft pays for your new computer, maybe you should let them, check the EULA, otherwise pay for the Linux machine.

    Thank you for your insight and clear statement of the truth.

  2. Pingback: Boycott Novell » Links 28/05/2008: Red Hat Big in Japan, Many Machines with GNU/Linux Preinstalled

  3. “you’re not only keeping money away from Microsoft,”

    I wish it were true. We do not know the secret deals M$ has with the OEMs. I would not be surprised to find the delicate promotion of GNU/Linux products by Dell is related to the terms of the deal with M$. Perhaps it is something like, “Thou shalt have no other OS before me.” or “Let’s keep it simple. You pay us $50 for every PC you ship.” Terms like these would cause Dell to stick to the old plan and not to form new markets.

    We also do not know the terms of the deal with Canonical. Perhaps Canonical pays them per machine for the opportunity to reach the market of Dell’s customers. Canonical may have put a quota on that deal. “Up to 100000 machines”. We just do not know.

    Soon, GNU/Linux will have a sufficiently large and reliable part of the market that what M$ does will be irrelevant to the growth of GNU/Linux but for now we are in a small fishing boat bumping against a freighter. It has momentum and lots of drag and eddies.

    Good article, as usual. I liked the comparison of machines. It is almost impossible to find identical hardware with the two OS so you can tell the price difference due to the OS. I suspect that is one way M$ expects to avoid competing on price.

    If one of those laptops had a gigabit/s NIC, I would order one today in bright yellow…

  4. The most accurate desktop-OS usage statistics should come from big website logs (i.e. google or yahoo). Too bad they don’t publish such data.

  5. Great post! Unfortunately, I purchased my ThinkPad T61p with XP and then installed Ubuntu after I received the laptop. Lenovo didn’t offer Ubuntu (or SuSE or any other Linux) at the time I purchased my laptop. Installing Ubuntu wasn’t very easy (I was new to Linux), but I finally got everything working except resume (because of the nVidia restricted driver/twinview issue). I love Ubuntu. I don’t see any need to ever use Vista and I don’t plan to.

  6. This is also the exact reason I started All the power users you were referring to now have the ability to help GNU/Linux by preconfiguring systems and selling them to those users who are looking for a deal and viable desktop but don’t have the interest or know how to load linux themselves.

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  8. It’s the driver support.

    Most of the difficulties in running Linux are related to getting it to recognise and use all the hardware to the full. While out of the box hardware support is way better in Linux than in Windows, many vendors do not provide Linux drivers, nor do they release their specifications. Sometimes, their binary drivers are not available for all kernels/distributions, are buggy and/or crippled.

    The major benefit in buying pre-installed Linux PCs is that on the short term the user will not have issues with the Linux installation and will be able to get the hardware to work with all its features, while on the long-term this will send a signal to component vendors that therre is a potentional Linux market that justifies the cost of providing Linux drivers and/or of providing support to open-source developers. On the mid-term, buyer will find more brands certain to provide Linux support for their components.

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