Dell Does Desktop Linux: Implications and Causes for Failure and Success

Rob Enderle

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.

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Apr 10, 2007 7:17 AM Robert Pogson Robert Pogson  says:
This analysis completely misses the magnitude of disgust with Microsoft which will reach a crescendo next year when XP support disappears. Hundreds of millions of working PCs will not be scrapped because Microsoft says so. Unsupported XP will be plagued with even more malware and users of those machines will have nowhere to go except GNU/Linux or other FLOSS. Dell is gearing up to catch that wave of discontent. Linux on the desktop is ready for that. Dell could also expand in GNU/Linux on AMD servers for Linux terminals for business and on laptops which until very recently were priced too high compared to performance of deskktops. With the widespread use of LCD monitors now, the laptop can be a compact desktop with the added feature of protability, if they would only put a decent keyboard into one. Going to Linux on laptops would give Dell more margin to compete. It is an interesting market shift and it could be dramatic in a year or so.The old canard about Linux being a cover for illegal Windows systems is a joke. Folks willing to install illegally Windows could do so on a naked machine, too. There are many governments in the emerging markets actively promoting FLOSS to spur local entrepreneurial spirit which otherwise would stay suppressed by Microsoft's monopoly. I would like to see a little of that in Canada where our Competition Bureau has declined to prosecute Microsoft, hoping the DOJ will do the job. It is entirely possible that Microsoft's products could begin to be banned in some parts as security risks and products of an illegal monopoly. Dell might have trouble keeping up with demand, then. Reply
Apr 10, 2007 7:31 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Actually Microsoft's XP plan of record is to supply mainstream support until 2009 and extended support until 2014. This has been a little confusing but the latest announcement can be found here: Linux for Windows thing is far from a joke, I was in China with one of the big OEMs and they stated it was one of their biggest problems (they had recently switched to using DOS instead). Under current Microsoft licensing they can't sell a naked machine (because it is assumed it will be loaded with pirated Windows). There has been a lot of talk of a Microsoft ban, but if you search on the words, nothing comes up recent other than the Novell SuSe stuff (which appears to still be somewhat at risk with GPL 3.0). But, you're right, if they were banned someone would benefit. Probably Apple first though. Reply
Apr 10, 2007 9:38 AM Penguin Pete Penguin Pete  says:
"Linux buyers typically buy at the lowest read least profitable price points"Astounding. For 15 years, every commercial business but Red Hat, Novell, and IBM has refused to do business with Linux users, on pain of death, and now all of a sudden there's this market statistic on us. We went from not allowed to board the bus to Jim Crows at the back of the bus without ever having actually been at the front being allowed to pay our fare. Hey, how about we allow Linux users to buy something before we make such haughty claims about what Linux users do and do not buy? You'd be surprised - lots of us get paid pretty good for our skills.... Reply
Apr 10, 2007 9:44 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
We did, this is the second time Dell has tried this. First time didn't work out so well. The vendors have been looking at this opporunity for some time, it all comes down to whether you'll come through this time. Studies still say no, by the way (which is why you only see Dell doing this), Dell is willing to see if the studies are wrong. If they aren't it will probably be another 5 years before anyone tries this again. Reply
Apr 10, 2007 10:01 AM Eric Eric  says:
Well not to kick a dead horse here, but I and all of the linux users I know personally do not by any means buy cheap hardware. Most of us own notebooks in the $1200 to $2200 range and desktops that are comparable in case you missed it we are the early adopters. We are the ones with a couple of notebooks a few desktops and home servers. I think it stands to reason that your point is not accurate. You also failed to speak about the small mom and pop businesses out there, you talk like these linux boxes will only be bought by home users. I have to say I have installed, setup, and administered many linux networks for small business. The little guys who see technology as a major barrier to entry, find linux a very viable option and would love to be able to call up dell and order it. Reply
Apr 10, 2007 11:19 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
And now is your chance to put your money where you mouth is. This is exactly what Dell is betting on, if you're right they win, if not... I'm not actually saying which way this will go just pointing out where it could go right or wrong. What I often hear is this same argument, but when it comes down to spending the money it just doesn't happen. My guess is everyone figures someone else is going to buy the product. Well, the question is my friend, are you going to buy a $1,200 to $2,200 laptop from Dell with Linux on it? Let me know when you do. This isn't going to happen by magic, folks really do have to step up and buy product. Reply
Apr 11, 2007 1:00 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
On the driver issue, Dell to my knowledge generally doesnt do drivers they get the drivers along with the component or rely on Microsoft generic drivers to make it work. The challenge will be to get the drivers upstream or assure the hardware works with Linux generic drivers (I dont even know if there is such a thing). This is the nature of dependencies in an established market; sometimes we take for granted things that work in the background, probably because the related systems were set up over a decade ago. But the OEMs got out of the core manufacturing business for the most part years ago and with that went their capability to work on drivers.Another issue is timing; vendors dont like to signal what they are building. This has been a huge problem with proprietary graphics drivers and timing. This may be a fundamental problem with OSS and hardware (it is carried over into the embedded market which has similar concerns) in that the entire concept of collaboration and sharing goes directly against the need for secrecy and to be first to market. This will make it hard to get Linux drivers onto cutting edge machines timely. There probably is a work around like making those that do the components supply Linux drivers timely. It will be interesting to see this play out, hopefully the component makers will ask for this help timely this time. Reply
Apr 11, 2007 1:01 AM Tobin Davis Tobin Davis  says:
I think the first area that this could fail is that Dell is working with a couple of Linux vendors for support. This is actually the wrong way to go. They need to work with the kernel developers directly. This point is very valid, as we are the ones that actually make the hardware work, the distributions then take our functioning drivers and patch them into their distribution.In the last 2 months, I have personally seen an influx of Dell owners on the linux support forums (,, #alsa on, and I have personally added support to the alsa sound drivers for 12 different Dell systems myself. These changes were added within 24 hours to the alsa source tree, and the main trunk of the Linux kernel a couple of weeks later, where distribution developers can pull them down for their in-house supported kernels.I for one would like to have an open dialog with someone inside Dell that can give me a simple list of systems and their audio configurations. With this information, support could be added within days, and Dell could provide drivers for downloading into whichever distro the consumer chooses.Other kernel developers feel the same way. See more information.The main reason for lack of hardware supprt in Linux is not due to lack of programmers. It is due to lack of hardware/documentation. I wrote an audio driver for another competitor's laptops with no documentation from the system manufacturer or the audio chip manufacturer, and it was very difficult. Since writing the initial driver though, the audio chip vendor has been really helpful on getting me their documentation (implementation on the different laptops varies though), and even sent me a test board to work with. If Dell would be willing to work with me and other developers, support would be a non-issue. Reply
Apr 11, 2007 4:47 AM Martin Chabr Martin Chabr  says:
Dell should not preinstall Linux. There are too many problems with it. They should just sell ANY machine from their product line without Windows and with a discount. The Linux users will then install the distribution of their choice and sort it out themselves.Dell diagnostic software should be included in the delivery, of course.If they do not want to do this, they should at least try to avoid their biggest mistake: They should not try to sell Linux machines again, which are hidden on their Web site and which cost more than their Windows counterparts. Reply
Apr 11, 2007 7:10 AM cyber_rigger cyber_rigger  says:
Dell should NOT preinstall desktop Linux..These companies need the customers. Reply
Apr 11, 2007 8:35 AM Jonathan Jonathan  says:
I do not completely agree with point for failure, number 2.There are many many people who would be happy to support Linux, by paying to hardward and software vendors that work with Linux.You will see how much Dell is going to sell to the community immediately in the first year or two.Thanks, Jonathan Reply
Apr 11, 2007 12:28 PM osViews | osOpinion osViews | osOpinion  says:
Dell Does Desktop Linux: Implications and Causes for Failure and Success 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 t Reply
Apr 11, 2007 12:55 PM phil phil  says:
This is being written on a Dell 390 running RedHat Enterprise 4. The company bought it with Windows XP pro. This is a very hot system. I wish I could buy it from Dell with Linux.The last time Dell "tried this" they hid Linux on their website. Someone had to tell you the URL. Worse, they offered very stripped down systems for more than a better system with Windows cost. If they do this again, they will fail again. A very cheap thing Dell can do today is get their drivers into, advertise the Linux kernel that runs the system and offer the system with no-OS for less than the other choices. I, personally, will buy a mid-range laptop under these terms. Reply
Apr 12, 2007 2:21 AM Tobin Davis Tobin Davis  says:
"On the driver issue, Dell to my knowledge generally doesnt do drivers they get the drivers along with the component or rely on Microsoft generic drivers to make it work."This is not entirely true. I have personally downloaded audio drivers from their website specific to a recent laptop model, and while the audio codec is widely used, the driver only had information pertaining to Dell systems (12 different Dell models to be exact). The information I am referring to is the specific PCI Subsystem ID, and is contained in a .INF file that ships with the driver. This ID is a 32bit number, the first 16bits (2 bytes) is the vendor ID, and the second 16 bits is the device ID. Based on this ID, the INF file tells the driver what each port is configured for on that system. Only someone inside Dell would have that information. The driver itsself may be generic from the vendor, but it is this specific information that the ALSA team needs.The installation program is specific to Dell as well. Reply
Apr 12, 2007 11:24 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I think you are assuming Dell did the driver and didn't outsource the work. Typically this work is outsourced to the device provider but I'll look into this and ask the question and post what I find out. Reply
Apr 16, 2007 2:19 AM Steven Eisele Steven Eisele  says:
Rob I would first like to say that I appreciate your research and articles. I have read much of your work over the years with Forrester and have found them useful and thought provoking. Thanks.We have been a strictly linux business for 5 years now. From '02 on, our yearly savings on hardware, software and support have been nearly 90% of our 2001 budget! The regular malware problems, along with the regular performance degradation that come along with a Microsoft OS, not to mention their predatory business practices and total disgust for their customers, precipitated our move as it has Mr Dells. A move that has been hugely successful as many other companies large and small can testify.I cannot speak to where other people are putting their money, but we are currently negotiating the purchase of a number of XPS M1210 sub-notebooks for our most mobile employees, with linux preloaded. The systems are premium systems (fastest Core 2 available, 2gb Ram, 160gb HD etc..) scoring in near $3k list.Our complaint, as mentioned above, is the lack of open marketing and general information. Several weeks ago when this story first hit, we began negotiations. It took our sales rep 4 hours to even discover that indeed linux on notebooks might be in the works. A follow up by her supervisor indicated that he would do everything in his power to ensure we got the cheapest possible pricing for our notebooks "with NO OS."So yes. The marketing model needs to more accurately reflect whatever it is they are, or will be trying to achieve. We previously investigated a Dell linux investment (as well as other vendors), but our conclusion was: "If they cannot prominently market a product, is it reasonable to believe they are confident in their offering?" It was cheaper to assemble our own systems in-house. Today, the money is on the table, we'll see if anyone has learned any lessons about marketing a product like they expect to sell it. Try to sell a windows computer hidden in the HTML recesses of your website, carefully ensure that your sales reps have absolutely no knowledge of it, then stand back in amazement had how "unready for the desktop" it is.I would like to add, as has been mentioned in your blog and Dell's IdeaStorm website. Don't chase distro's, just provide solid hardware support. I think the ease of this process is but little understood. The linux community in general will do your work for you. Just provide them with the basic hardware spec's and they will generally have a working solution in days if not hours.So really success might not be quite so difficult after all:1.)Do proper marketing.2.)Provide Hardware details to the linux kernel community.Our business can get by ok with only #1 righ t now. We are waiting to see if they can get it right... Reply
Apr 16, 2007 2:46 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Cool keep me posted and good luck! Reply
May 2, 2007 8:25 AM zerofool zerofool  says:
what's wrong with cheap! Reply
May 2, 2007 11:14 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
It doesn't throw off enough cash and then vendors don't want the business. There is good business and bad, that you don't make money on is generally thought to be bad business. Executives are measured (and compensated) on profit, cheap isn't profitable. Sometimes it is hard to find the profit, but if a vendor loves something it is generally because it is making they a lot of money someplace. Reply

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