EU and PCs without Operating Systems: How to Create Another Disadvantage for Apple and Linux

Rob Enderle

A think tank (Damn! I need to join one of these and rest my head) just popped up saying that computers should be sold without operating systems.


Let's bypass the fact that Microsoft clearly has a massive image problem right now and follow this thinking on its own "merits" for a moment. This think tank has concluded that because Linux isn't on many PCs, the reason isn't because Linux isn't competitive, it's because people don't get their choice of operating systems.


Gee, I think that car and tire companies are too close, so let's sell cars without tires, or you know, window companies have a lock-in on houses, so let's sell houses without windows, or doors, or carpets, or . . . When did it ever make sense to address a competitive issue by forcing consumers to build their own products? Let's see, who has the most loyal customers? Apple. Who would this hurt the most? Hint: It isn't Microsoft.


Seriously, who would this policy hurt the most? Microsoft, which actually does sell a class of OS products for the home PC builder; a small PC manufacturer which includes all the stuff to work with a massive variety of hardware devices; Apple, which doesn't have a hardware-independent OS; or Linux, which the home-builder market appears to avoid like the plague? (And which has this little overabundance of distributions issue).


And this comes at a time when one of the biggest initiatives in the industry I know of is to use Linux as a pre-boot OS under a hypervisor, which would, if it succeeds, actually make Linux the default OS on hardware, but be illegal under this proposal.


I'm seriously starting to wonder whether there are too many people in Europe whose elevators don't go to the top floor.


Why People Who Don't Know PCs Can't Get It Right


A few years ago, Larry Ellison of Oracle and Scott McNealy of Sun came up with the idea of a thin-client platform to displace Windows on the desktop. It was actually a good idea, and if it had someone with the remotest clue how the desktop market actually worked been behind it, we probably would have a massive number of thin clients in the market now as opposed to a tiny fraction.


The problem is people get so excited about their ideas, they forget that to move on a market, they have to understand the existing market dynamics. Part of those dynamics are an existing robust ecosystem made up of people who don't actually work for Microsoft, but live symbiotically off the infrastructure that company has created. These folks specify and support the hardware they and their companies use and, if you can't capture them, you can't move on the market.


In addition, you can't move in under just a cost-savings message. If that were the case, a lot more of us would use second-hand hardware or really old stuff. You also need to provide some key benefit the user wants, so they will make the switch. That is why Apple appears to be gaining share competitively; Apple is providing an ease-of-use/reliability/coolness benefit that pulls customers to its platform. Where Apple misses is that for corporations, you need at least two competing vendors using your platform so the corporation doesn't have to go through the massive pain of sole sourcing. (Intel had this same problem and helped AMD in the beginning to get into the same business). Finally, you need an out-of-box-experience that is acceptable to the market.


For thin clients, there was a massive up-front cost, no two solutions were alike, and users generally hated the things once they had them. This has mostly been mitigated over the years, but thin clients, blade PCs, and other alternative PC platforms largely stillhave the competitive bidding problem keeping them from mainstreaming.


Why Bare-Bones PCs Won't Work


Simple: drivers and out-of-box experience. To get around this, you'd still have to get the OS from the OEM, as much of what goes in a new PC is, well, new. Linux drivers (assuming the buyer even knows which distribution will work) tend not to be first on the priority list and probably aren't even in the Boxed Windows OS on the shelf. Then, if you load the OS and the result breaks, who do you call? It wasn't the OEM's image, and while you can call the source of the OS, if the machine was never actually loaded with an OS in the first place, how does that company do any remote diagnostics?


I can picture the call:


Me: Hello, PC Vendor. My machine won't boot. Dell: This is a recording, hit the number for the OS you installed for help. Ah, you need to call xxx and get help from the OS Company. OS Company: This is a recording: If your PC won't boot, please call the OEM for assistance as it is probably a problem with its drivers.


And so on...


Machines are largely tested without loading the OS now, so this is actually easier to do these days (old PCs without an OS were originally preloaded with something like DOS). But think how the out-of-box experience would go. You'd get the PC, which might come with a driver disk -- you are kind of screwed if you have a laptop without an optical drive. Then you'd take your OS of choice and try to load it, putting in the driver disk when asked. Now you could put the drivers on the hard drive, you say. Which file system do you use and what happens if the OS formats that partition when it installs? The word "screwed" comes to mind.


Now, there is no way the OEM has matched up the version of the OS (and it will be patched over time) with the drivers, particularly if the PC is either new and the OS has been on the shelf for a long time or, inversely, the PC has been on the shelf a long time and the OS is new. There will need to be some kind of Garanimals matching system. Hey, I just had an idea, maybe a 3-year-old came up with this idea?


These will not be happy moments, and you'll either get things that don't work or screens of death (once again, Windows is designed to deal with these problems and has a massive driver library, but even it likely often will have issues with new hardware). This means the user is basically completing and QCing their own PC.


For retail, they will likely step in and load and test the OS you want for you, and clearly have incentives to sell you the one that generates the most cash. So, let's see, which vendor has the strongest retail position and best incentive model. I doubt people in "think tanks" study retail much.


How Could it Work?


Well, if the market does move to the pre-boot VM model I was talking about, the hardware can be abstracted and then the driver problem largely goes away. In addition, networking is up in the pre-boot, along with advanced diagnostics, so the systems can be better tested before delivery. Then, if networked, the OS of choice can be downloaded from the OEM, which can still ensure the experience. The strange thing about all this is that this is pretty much exactly where the industry is trying to go in the first place. But this sure isn't the way to get there and someone still needs to complete Linux so it has an adequate out-of-box experience, and the OEMs are looking to do this themselves like Apple did with BSD UNIX. It will likely take a year or so to get the work done though.


If Apple were forced to support other hardware, you wonder whether the result would kill Apple like cloning almost did (recall Jobs killed that when he returned). I still think cloning could work for Apple if it were done right and the Apple OS is cooked. (The problem before was Apple hardware wasn't cost competitive; it could be this time around).


Wrapping Up


If PCs had to be sold without operating systems, the result wouldn't work, and both Linux and Apple in particular would be hurt the most long-term, not to mention the OEMs that likely would pass the not-insignificant additional support costs for the "alternative" operating systems back to the buyer.


The problem with Linux isn't that OEMs don't want to use it; Linux isn't ready for the desktop. The platform does not provide the required out-of-box and support experience. Dell is trying to use it, and so is Lenovo, but it's neither a big seller nor is it particularly profitable. Someone has to market Linux at some point, and it doesn't throw off enough profit to cover a good marketing program.


Here is a hint: When Apple took the MacOS and allowed cloning for a short time, its market share increased sharply for the OS (it suffered in hardware, but that was a different problem that doesn't apply here). Apple took UNIX and in a short time created a truly competitive OS -- the problem is that it's tied to Apple hardware. All the Linux folks have to do is do what Apple did, but don't tie the result to one hardware vendor. It's foolish to run around destroying the user's experience before hard OS work is done. You can't force a solution on people; the fix is to make the solution attractive enough so people want to use it.


Maybe the new European Linux motto is "Getting the hard stuff done is a pain in the butt, so we get our users to do it for us."


Yep, this will work. Lord, what do they put in the water over there?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 26, 2007 8:50 AM David David  says:
Yup, an aweful idea. These people have nothing but a bent on to do harm to Microsoft and not help the consumer in any way whatsoever. I would never have my parents go through this. They could pick Windows, but then when it comes time to install; they can't do that. Again, the EC has no consumer interest in mind here anymore. It's all about how to help the poor companies who can't compete and trying to harm Microsoft. Reply
Sep 27, 2007 4:44 PM Len Bullard Len Bullard  says:
Qui bono? In a world of fragmented systems, who do you call? Why, your friendly service salesmen.Pump up the kids about how superior they are to their elders (see pmarca comments on baby boomers, see red-haired kid and delusional supervisor in commercial), create a campaign for liberation from tyrants (see Bob Sutor's blogs on ODF), make sure no one is looking at the proprietary systems the company is endorsing, give away code that you don't want to sell (no money because it costs more to vend than to give away) but you won't offer support services for, then sit back and wait.Call it the Revenge of IBM. But markets aren't easily herded. Legislators are populists by profession. Anyone remember the turmoil after the break up of Ma Bell? Put enough noise into the Internet infrastructure, and the ecosystems begin to cleave along local lines. That puts posh to global systems. Qui bono? Reply
Oct 1, 2007 1:19 PM Coherent Coherent  says:
Good idea or bad ? I dont know. But I do know that the water in Europe isnt tainted, and I sure do wonder what people in America have been smoking lately.We Americans spend our time demonizing world-domination by Nazis, the evils of empires bent at Americas destruction, the inferiority of everyone on the planet to our way of life, etc. but when it comes to business, ah, theres the rub. We dominate, and when it even reaches the point of touching a platform like Windows, we whine and howl when someone wants to see change. We dont think there is anything wrong with what we do because weve had a brainwashed culture that assures us that were always the good-guys. Were alright right and we are always the best. So how dare anyone start touching where we have been abusive, right? Who are these guys anyway? Who do they think they are? Cant they recognise superiority when theyve clearly been beaten? Ha, ha, ha.Well, according to the first comment posted from David, what does Microsoft have to be afraid of? If they are so exceptional, why be worried? Its because competition will hurt Microsoft where it will feel it the most that their software wont be bought anymore based upon the lock-in with x86 architecture.Think about it. Why do we still purchase 1970s hardware technology for PCs today? You may say that dual-core pentiums arent archaic, but Ill prove you quite wrong. Then there is the software issue. I still laugh at Steve Balmers comment in a mid-1990s documentary where he said Microsofts delay in Windows95 was due to their time being wasted by IBM during the 1980s. Well, here we are with Vista in 2007, and MS has barely caught up with MacOS X (and this is a whole new OS since the original Apple OSs). Balmers arrogant assumption that it is somehow always somebody elses fault that Microsoft is so incompetent in being a true leader in technology is still what is wrong with Microsoft. I think the problem is Balmer et al, not anyone else.The EU think-tank is only making recommendations. Your article cites all the possible snags that must be thought through for how to support such a notion. Very legitimate reasons, all which people would get jobs to think and implement how to make it work.If I had the choice to go into a store and buy today and tomorrow's technology in hardware (cpus, bus, etc.) and run my choice of OS which could be easily installed and have reputable support from both hardware and software sides all for the right price, man, what a wonderful world it would be.The objective of the EU think-tank is to try to start a revolution today, so we dont have Stalinist hardware and software still offered to us fifty years from now. Reply
Oct 1, 2007 6:10 PM Coherent Coherent  says:
Thinking about this a little more, I agree that this could really hurt Apple, but there's a way they could get around it. If you sell proprietary hardware, legislation could allow you to sell your proprietary OS with it. Therefore, it is your choice to have proprietary hardware and OS (which is where Apple has been all along). Otherwiser, its mix and match.As MS is not a hardware vendor, but has locked in the x86 market and all the device OEM's that support PC's, the "think-tank" recommendation could be valid.I could see this as a plus for Linux, as Linux already supports multiple CPU architectures well. (MS says they do - for Xbox at least and Windows embedded sort of, but do they really want to for the public market? )The real benefit I was trying to hit on would be in the hardware sector. We are faced with having to live with WinTel because of market dominance. The x86 market momentum is so strong, that even Intel couldn't change the hardware market if they wanted to, because MS wouldn't let them (maybe I'm being pesumptous here, but...) - or at least the dependence on Windows has them cornered in this case.I see this more as an innovative motivator for hardware vendors like HP, Dell, etc. than a single attack on Microsoft. MS has enough cash reserves to survive comfortably if this ever came to pass.BTW, I'll leave my name as a poster.-Robert Reply
Oct 1, 2007 6:55 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Good name, hard for me to forget.The issue is that the proposal puts additional load on the consumer who now must go even farther to finish the solution than they do now and they dont like the complexity they have to deal with now. Think about it, what other product in the market comes as a finish it yourself offering. You can modify cars (and risk losing your warranty), appliances and cell phones you get as a package (smart phones you can add applications to but few do that), and consumer electronics comes in hardware modules (with the highest selling configurations often the all-in-one products). There are those of us who do like to build things, and we can build our own hardware and buy the OS we want (with Apple being the exception) today. Though getting it to work is the problem.Dell has indicated that if Apple licensed their OS, theyd use it and the problem with Linux is that it carries too much support cost for them to take any more aggressively than they currently do. They dont think it will sell, the way it is, in the general market which is why they focus on Linux enthusiasts. The assumption the EU think take is making which is incorrect is that Microsoft is still able to block the entry of competing OS vendor. If that were true all Smartphones would run Microsoft software, as would all set top boxes, all networked video game systems etc. Apple has been growing share by completing the solution, the reason they cant grow it faster is they are a single hardware vendor and are overmatched against the other 95% of the hardware vendors that control the current PC market.What Linux needs to compete is not a build it yourself market, which would still favor complete solutions like Windows and the MacOS, but a complete solution. That means rather than looking for a government boost, which probably wont work anyway, they need to complete the offering and that means that, much like Microsoft did in the 80s with IBM, someone will have to make some really hard choices. And that someone should never be the consumer. Reply
Oct 2, 2007 2:34 PM Robert Robert  says:
What Linux needs to compete is not a build it yourself market, which would still favor complete solutions like Windows and the MacOS, but a complete solution.I couldnt agree with you more. This subject and issues you touch spark a lot of thinking. When I wrote the second post, I had in mind exactly this point about linux benefiting from such a decision, but for the sake of not boring you with long posts, decided not to touch it.The benefit I see is that Linux distros would have to formalize to survive, i.e. they would quickly dwindle down to a few quality distributions that have enough cash and backing to become a viable, mature product in other words, a complete solution. This follows my post from your article on August 7 proposing Ubuntu Linux being the possible new standard Linux desktop.I think Linux would need to become the hardware vendors Linux. I mean for example, Dell partners with Ubuntu to make it worth their while (as well as any other hardware vendor and Linux distribution partnership). Linux techies would have to grow-up to understand how partnership with vendors will have to help them to become complete solutions (which means accepting being told what to do by somebody else from time to time).On the other side of your article concerning consumer chaos, I agree also. You rightly point out the burden this would place on the consumer but as I wrote change in this way may not be as bad as it seems. Painful at first, but better in the end.Still, this is an EU issue. Whatever the Europeans have in mind only carries jurisdiction in the European market. Honestly, the Europeans offer choices in consumer items in a more complicated way, because Europeans in general like to feel that they have to make informed decisions. Complexity makes them think a little about what they are doing. They like it this way. Theyre a little suspicious to accept the MacDonalds in-a-box solution to consumer electronics.Also, when you go into an electronics store, what do salespeople have to say? They sell you the hardware. Of course, they mention that it runs the latest version of Windows. But what is it that gets you to buy this computer package over another? Its the hardware pitch CPU, RAM, Video Capability and Monitors. Really, you have to admit, people do not buy PCs today just so they can have Microsoft Windows. They want a hardware platform they feel is worth their money. Its just a feel-good that I fit with Windows and all the loaded shelves of third-party software across the aisle that works with it. But if salespeople can inform consumers of a hardware platform that fits their forked-over cash expectations with an OS and "new-platform" supported apps that can do most, if not all, of whatever they want would this really confuse consumers if its a range of choices? Reply

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