Let's look at recent developments three ways: First at the initial Ubuntu announcement, then at the most recent Novell/Microsoft partnering, and finally where I think (based mostly on your feedback) things will end up.
As I've mentioned previously, Dell is faced with a very difficult road. Linux is not really ready for the desktop yet -- it requires someone like Dell to close this gap, and that means Dell has to be a pioneer.
This is not a natural place for Dell to be; it typically follows someone else into the market to minimize risk and maximize revenues. However, increasingly, it appears to want to take a leadership position. This is one huge example of that changing strategy.
But, because no one has really gone here before, Dell is easing into the market to ensure it doesn't drop tons of cash on initiatives which, in hindsight, look foolish or stupid. This is like someone getting into murky and cold water on a really hot day; they know it will feel better once in, but they don't want to hurt themselves on a hidden sharp object or shock their systems with too much cold water at once. So Dell is putting one foot in, then the other, and then waiting a bit to make sure it wants to go further before doing a cannon ball into the middle of the lake.
Ubuntu: Capturing the Linux Enthusiast
Ubuntu is the Linux flavor of the month and appears to enjoy the widest following with the Linux enthusiasts who appeared to be at the core of this decision. Look at this as a broad test of the most vocal group of Linux supporters to see if, by choosing the most popular distro, Dell can build a level of trust with the Linux community that will be key to the success of this effort.
Working with Canonical as the support partner to help shield Dell from support duties it is not designed to provide, the end result is expected to be a solution that should work well for shops that have set their sights on Linux and have strong internal Linux advocacy and skill sets.
This market isn't the market that is naturally strategic to Dell, as the likely mix here is probably more UNIX than Windows, and Dell's power is in the Windows segment. But, because it is nearly impossible to separate Linux from the Linux enthusiast, Dell wisely made its initial tentative move to appease the enthusiasts before making its strategic play.
Dell + Microsoft/Novell
Dell is the preeminent Windows hardware vendor. It never did UNIX to any broad degree, and for much of its life has been connected at the hip to Microsoft. That relationship isn't what it once was, however, and Dell currently feels the need to expand its market potential aggressively outside Microsoft so it can return to strong growth.
But, its installed base is mostly running on Windows, and these accounts will clearly be less interested in Linux pure-plays than in solutions that integrate Windows and Linux. Currently the only distribution that is doing that to extremes is SuSe under the Novell/Microsoft partnership.
This partnership connects development, service and support across both companies. Much like its predecessor was with Netware, it should improve dramatically the overall IT experience in the mixed Linux/Windows shops that represent most of Dell's real Linux opportunity.
This doesn't come without some risk, because the same Linux enthusiasts who love Ubuntu appear to hate Novell for doing this deal and are likely to compare the result to the "axis of evil." They are already turning out against this deal. Getting over that impression will be difficult, but given this was the one relationship that made strategic sense, Dell couldn't avoid it.
IT actually appears to like the Novell/Microsoft deal, which isn't a surprise given IT's biggest headaches often come from warring vendors and related systems which should, but don't, interoperate. IT just wants stuff to work, and IT is the target audience for this effort.
Message from IT to Dell: Don't Preload Linux
Feedback to me from the IT folks I have spoken to, or those who have written to me, is clear: They don't want Dell to preload Linux at all. What they want Dell to do -- much like the vendor has done for workstations -- is to certify hardware for certain Linux distributions and let them put their own build of Linux on the product and use the Linux community to assist with support.
They want Dell to focus on getting them drivers and helping them to ensure whatever platform they want works, but they want to own the result. (In fact, most seemed to think it wouldn't actually work any other way.) They don't want a Windows clone; they want something dramatically different.
This suggests a changing structure, one in which the successful vendor will embed itself deeply in Linux, both technically and politically, to help drive decisions which benefit large desktop deployments and rely on the Linux community and the customer, instead of relying on a single vendor like Microsoft.
This is vastly simpler to say than to do, and much of the process to make this work doesn't really exist yet. The question remains, does the market have the patience to let this solution evolve or will it hang Dell for what are likely to be some initial mistakes and growing pains as the company pioneers desktop Linux?
Success or Failure
Like before, the success or failure of this effort will have a great deal to do with the Linux community. This is as it should be for a community-driven project, but communities are not known for thinking strategically and often choose to focus on the short-term, tactical pain instead. If Dell is attacked for making exploratory decisions that go against what the enthusiasts want, the momentum behind its efforts is likely to falter. And if Dell fails, it may be years before someone else tries again, if ever.
Dell has to succeed, and it is clearly very serious about this effort, even though its initially tentative moves might signal otherwise. Remember, Dell typically is not a pioneer, and the fact that it is willing to take what is a huge risk at this time says a lot about how badly it needs to expand its market and how desperately it needs Linux supporters to ensure this effort is successful.
As a side note, this isn't the only place you'll see Dell attempt to take a leadership position going forward. Michael Dell is back, and he wants to turn the company into a leader again. Watch this space because Dell is going to attempt to move from being a broad follower to being a broad leader over the next several years, and from system design to solution execution.
You are seeing a company transform itself to deal with the new world.
Who says change can't be a good thing?