Dell has announced its intention to do Linux on the desktop. This could have major implications regardless of whether it succeeds or fails, and the odds are currently -- based on past history -- more in line with failure than success.
However, with any new trend eventually someone gets it right, and that someone could be Dell.
Let's take a short look at what the strongest reasons for failure and success could be for this new attempt to find an alternative desktop OS. I'm going to limit the discussion points to three for each section, but don't assume I think this is all of them. I'm just picking the three strongest.
Foundation for Success
1) There is substantial frustration with Microsoft right now with both OEMs and users and that surrounds virtually all efforts to displace Windows on the desktop. In accounts and with people where this frustration is highest, the willingness to accept the pain and cost of a transition to another platform will also be highest. And these folks will avoid like the plague any communication of dissatisfaction with the result. In fact, they will likely be very vocal about how successful the effort was and help create a foundation that an improving product can build on for the future.
2) Dell is aggressively looking for ways to expand its market share and believes that this move to Linux could help. That belief is fueling a level of support not available to this offering before, and Dell is one of the most powerful companies in the segment. With enough financial backing and focus, a company of Dell's stature can often accomplish things that smaller companies can not, and they help make the resulting offering much safer, in terms of risk, than otherwise would be the case.
3) The SaaS trend continues to accelerate, and with third-party products like Google Apps that aren't connected to a Dell competitor (as OpenOffice is), this dramatically lowers the risk associated with a platform shift. Going forward, this environment will only become easier to drop another platform in, be it Linux or the Mac OS, and will both benefit this offering and Apple's Leopard.
Foundation for Failure
1) Compatibility/Interoperability has become another way of saying "this isn't Windows," but speaks also to the problem of many distributions. Linux never embraced Windows; the Mac OS actually comes closer by far to mitigating this problem and avoiding distribution complexity. Leopard appears focused on addressing this issue (reports of additional delays appear to be false). From the license to the applications that run on Linux (and don't), there is a vast difference between this product and what most are used to running. Advocates play this down, but expectations for the average user will likely be much higher than the legitimate experience can demonstrate and negative coverage will likely follow. Unhappy users typically don't lead to success, and much of the experience is actually outside Dell's capability to address -- it isn't a software house, after all. If even a vertically integrated Apple solution is falling short, one that can't provide what Apple does in this regard would have significant additional risk.
2) Linux buyers typically buy at the lowest -- read least profitable -- price points, and up-selling them for software like Office or Norton Anti-Virus is not a real opportunity. Because Linux is different, it will have a higher support cost risk, and this lower upsell opportunity will combine to constrict Dell's margins unless buying behavior is changed. Unlike many PC makers, Dell is actually a retailer, and much of its historic financial advantage came from this ability. This reduction in margin reflects actually makes one of the problems Michael Dell is trying to fix worse. If that isn't reversed, this will be a short-lived test. The big problem may not be compatibility, it may be profitability.
3) Abusive behavior often cuts across forums that talk about this subject. People asking legitimate questions can be personally attacked and recently a related blogger got death threats for being too nice. This last actually made it to CNN for coverage. This appears to many to be out of control right now, and not an experience a Windows user is likely to get if looking for help with that platform.
If this behavior makes it into Dell forums because people disagree about distributions (for instance, if they choose to use SuSe) or simply with the tone of a post, Dell may have no choice but to abandon the effort in the face of the risk they might be held accountable by the press and more sane customers who use those forums for business -- particularly if people have to become concerned with personal safety. While this behavior may be explained by the new book "The Lucifer Effect" by Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo, it is nonetheless unacceptable and could create a massive exposure for this move if not contained or effectively managed.
If this succeeds, the desktop will be forever altered. Linux can move where the Mac OS can't and has a number of advantages that has been missing in a Windows alternative product. Dell's success would quickly spread to the top teir and become validated for use in the emerging market, which historically has used Linux simply to cover up its use of pirated Windows. The success would point a path to Linux profitability that has been elusive for the platform and could force us to re-evaluate how software is delivered and developed going forward.
However, if Dell fails it will set Linux on the desktop back five or more years, as few will then be willing to take the risk that Dell took. In a fast-moving market, Linux might actually never recover, and the frustration with not having an alternative could force another platform forward in the place of Linux relegating Linux to the history books -- at least with regard to the desktop.
There is a lot riding on this effort. Michael Dell is betting a great deal personally because a failure here would suggest a lack of good judgment and/or an inability to execute. This has the potential to either put Dell in the lead again or drop it so far behind HP that there is little chance of catching up. This defines the significant risk Dell is taking, and it is to its credit that it is willing to do that. But its success, and the success of the desktop Linux movement, probably lies largely with those who buy the Dell Linux systems. If there are a lot and they are high quality (are acceptably profitable) Dell's gamble will pay off, if not, a bad end is almost certain.
While the odds favor the latter, the former is possible and the market never more ready, and Dell will make history regardless. To say this will be interesting to watch is a huge understatement.