Linux on Dell: Preinstalled is Not What We Want

by Chris Tyler

It seems that Dell is scratching its head trying to figure out what it would take to get Linux on their desktop and laptop systems in order to meet customer demand (as hinted at on the DellIdeaStorm site). But I'm not convinced that preinstallation is what Linux customers really want from Dell or the other hardware vendors. Most experienced sysadmins have preferred distributions, application sets, and partitioning layouts, and it isn't possible to provide a one-size-fits-all preinstall image. (This problem isn't unique to Linux -- most companies re-image their Windows systems to their liking). Furthermore, the rapid release rate of most distributions would make image preparation a continuous task for the hardware vendors.

What I think we really want is in-tree drivers. If a hardware vendor took pains to ensure that their product lines -- or, perhaps, just their "Linux-ready" product line -- incorporated only hardware for which there were drivers in the kernel tree (and/or drivers in the major hardware-dependent projects, such as X.org [video] or pam [biometrics & smart cards]), those systems would automatically be compatible with all of the major Linux distributions and would remain so for a reasonable length of time.

This would require the vendor's systems to be built around established hardware for which drivers already exist, or drivers will need to be pushed into the kernel before the systems are shipped (which creates an interesting problem: how do you get many eyes looking at code for hardware that isn't available? -- but if we wait until the hardware is widely available, then Linux will never support the latest hardware. We may need to rething some of our procedures if we want to see broad support for new hardware in Linux). Of course, there is a third way: design new hardware to use existing protocols and interfaces, in the same way that HP SCSI scanners used a stable protocol for years, Postscript and HP PCL printers are (largely) backwards-compatible (for two decades!), and new USB 2.0 high speed flash drives can be successfully accessed by ancient USB 1.0 storage drivers. This requires good engineering (which is a good thing!).

If such systems were shipped with WhoCaresLinux X.Y.Z, we'd still be happy. We could easily install the latest Ubuntu/SUSE/Fedora/Debian/any distribution with confidence that it would run well.

What do you think: Would you be satisfied to know that a vendor's system offerings were all covered by in-tree drivers, even if Linux was not preinstalled or the preinstalled distro was not the one you intended to use?

12 Comments

Mace Moneta
2007-03-23 12:59:47
It depends on the target audience. Almost all existing Linux users would be very happy to know that all the hardware is supported by the current (kernel.org) kernel. However, new users that are interested in getting a PC with Linux would likely want a pre-install. These are the same folks (the majority of PC users) that will buy a new PC rather than re-install Windows - installation is not an option for this market segment.


This leaves Dell in the same situation - they still need to pre-install something, and they need help figuring out what that something is. To the knowledgeable Linux community it doesn't matter. They will wipe and reinstall anyway, as long as the hardware is compatible, to get the installation tuned to their liking. Dell only needs to worry about the broader Linux market.

Robb
2007-03-23 13:15:36
I will not but a Linux-ready PC that is pre-installed with Windows. I don't want to pay for Windows. I think Dell should put a Linux distro geared to new users on there machines, because the others will likely install a different distro anyway.
chromatic
2007-03-23 17:36:52
I don't care which distribution the vendor has preinstalled, as long as all of the hardware as unencumbered drivers in the appropriate trees and I don't have to pay the Microsoft or Apple tax.
Tel
2007-03-23 18:59:14
When it comes to desktop machines, I'm going to the local whitebox reseller who is always cheaper than Dell and I'm going to order something to my spec for the job I need to do. That's because I'm a user who doesn't need handholding and I would rather deal with someone moderately local so I can go back there for replacements is something breaks down (and small enough to at least slightly care about whether I do business with them in the future).


On the other hand, when it comes to buying a laptop I find that most of the major brands are forcing me to pay the "Microsoft Tax" for software that I'm never going to use. I'll probably buy from the Linux Certified range for my next laptop and they offer Fedora and Ubuntu which are the two distros that I would be choosing between if I was installing anyhow. Once you know the hardware is supported and you know which drivers to load, changing to a different distro is very easy anyhow.


From Dell's point of view, the target market is probably people who want to save money but who probably don't know enough to reinstall either Microsoft-Windows or any Linux you care to name. They just want a cheap computer that does the basic things like editing a document, running a spreadsheet, browsing the Web, playing games and watching a DVD or listening to a CD. Dell should get Ubutu and strip it back to just the core applications. Then they should team up with a computer support company and they should offer a basic user support contract that only covers the standard Dell/Ubuntu install and only the stripped back core applications. These machines don't need exceptional hardware, they just need to be cheap. The first year of support should be built into the purchase price, after that the customer can buy more years as they go.



doeppjakab
2007-03-24 00:38:48
I wouldn't use a pre-installed Linux. For me, Linux is about choice: choice of distribution (I use Slackware), partitioning options (which filesystem, how much space on root, how much on /home, etc.), choice of what kernel to use, etc. And of course there's the joy of installing your own system the way you want it.


On the other hand, I would see it as a very positive thing if Dell were to pre-install some form of Linux and support it. Such a move would help to overcome two "weaknesses" in Linux-based distributions: hardware support and software support. (These are not actually Linux weaknesses: it would be more precise to say "support for Linux by hardware manufacturers and by software producers.") Anything that would get hardware and software producers to realize the market for Linux and act appropriately can only be welcomed.

Robert
2007-03-24 17:25:05
You are all the wrong target audience if the goal is to get Linux as a viable choice on the desktop. It is a given that you geeks don't want a pre-installed version because you can handle the setup and tweaking. The average mom and pop cannot and they would need something pre-installed and supported. You have to start somewhere if you want " to be the year of Linux".
Patric Conant
2007-03-26 16:52:06
I don't think people are scared of installing linux, even new users, they are scared of having problems, problems they aren't prepared to solve. In my experience there are plenty of mature stable installers out there, so the major question is hardware compatibility. There are several distibutions with a "next, next, next" install, and new users would be fine with those, as long as there hardware worked. Linux-certified would probably meet most people's requirements, but for people insisting on preinstalled Linux, I don't think Dell can go wrong with any paticular distribution. Given Ubuntu's momentum and availability of support, it seems like a simple answer. The important thing is compatible supported hardware, just as the author pointed out. I really believe that the majority of the community would be best served by and most responsive to machines that had only supported hardware.
Stuart Jefferys
2007-03-26 22:05:07

A pre-installed distro should be chosen for ease of use by the average - hopefully soon to be former - windows user. They need the help. If the drivers and software packages (especially wireless, advanced video drivers, movie players, etc) are all available, the average Linux user will do what they always do, tweaking everything, recompiling the kernel, updating to beyond the edge CVS tree code, etc.


Being in the middle ground myself, I wanted Linux tools, working hardware, and no system administration, so a couple of years ago I took a side road and bought a Mac. I love closing my laptop and reopening the next day with everything just as I left it, ready to go. I've never seen that work under Linux. If there had been a fully supported laptop with any Linux distro, I would have bought that instead. My previous laptop was a Dell, so they lost a 2k sale (Macs are not cheap).

As for the philosophical problems with open source vs binary only drivers, I say once a person finds out they like vegetables, being a vegetarian doesn't seem so crazy any more.


2007-03-27 06:52:14
Why not throw some of the onus on the distros?
Dell could install some minimal os then have the user choose which distro they wanted at which point it would pull it off the net and install it.
Dell could have a program/certification that a distro had to pass before being included in the list of available distros. This seems to me more the 'open source' way - choice and sharing of responsibilities.
James
2007-03-28 14:19:05
Assurance is not demonstration. The only way to know Linux and, especially, X runs is to run it. Installing Linux will show Dell and Dell's customers it really works. Equally, when X doesn't run after overwriting the installed Linux, the user can start his mailing list posting with It worked with Dell's configuration.


It would be nice if they published the dmesg and/or driver list, too.

wfertuy
2007-06-05 08:15:23


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Rachel
2008-05-05 11:35:01
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