Dell customers want open source

PC vendor's new community Web site, which solicits ideas from Dell customers, reveals some customers' desire for open source systems.

Dell Computer customers want Linux and other open source software pre-loaded in their PCs--at least, that's what they're saying on a new online community site initiated by the computer maker.

Launched last week, Dell IdeaStorm is an online community platform where customers can post their ideas on any kind of technology and Dell's products, services and operations. Users will have to register as members to post comments on the site.

The community can discuss ideas with other users and vote on the best ones. According to a media statement released last week, Dell said it will share the ideas throughout its organization to "trigger new thoughts and evolve everything that's done at the company".

Each user vote increases the popularity rating of an idea by 10 points, and users are not allowed to cast multiple votes for a single idea.

To date, the most popular idea--garnering over 67,000 points--calls for Dell to offer the three top free Linux distributions--Fedora, Ubuntu and OpenSuse--as free pre-installation on all Dell PCs.

"Quality free and open source software drastically lowers the cost of new PCs, and helps prevent software piracy," said community member dhart, who first mooted the idea on Feb. 16.

The next most popular idea is for Dell to preinstall popular open source software, such as the OpenOffice productivity suite, Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird e-mail client and Gaim instant messaging software.

However, not all forum members support the notion of bundling open source software in their PCs. "One of the advantages of Linux is being able to tailor the installation to suit your needs, tweak your options, installed components, kernel modules and such," said one member who calls himself theblackcat. "Having it preinstalled defeats the whole purpose, in my opinion."

theblackcat added: "And, cost is not necessarily going to be lower with Linux. First of all, [providing it] as preinstalled software, Dell would be required to offer customer support for it. It is a lot easier to cause serious damage to Linux than to Windows, and would require training tech support on one or more entirely new operating systems, especially when you factor in multiple completely different GUIs (graphical user interface) like KDE and Gnome and the various compatibility problems between them.

"Second, installing drivers on Windows is much, much simpler, often completely automatic. That is not the case with many Linux distributions. It may even require Dell [to compile] their own drivers in some cases. There would also be a lot of work making sure all the systems have the most up-to-date drivers and that drivers are even available for all of their hardware. So [while] the actual software may be free, there are other costs that could make it more expensive overall."

Dell currently offers Red Hat Linux preinstalled on desktop PCs in its n Series offerings targeted at business customers. It also offers 'naked PCs', which are systems that are sold without any preloaded operating system.

Previously dogged by an onslaught of customer hiccups including flaming notebook batteries, Dell is clearly placing an emphasis on improving customer service. Its founder and CEO Michael Dell, said in a statement: "We are at our best when we are hearing directly from our customers. We listen, learn and then improve and innovate based on what our customers want. It's one of the real advantages of being a direct company."

"It's amazing to think that there are now 1 billion people online and another billion will [be added] over the next several years," Dell said. "We already interact with about 3 million customers per day, but now we are rolling out some new ways for customers to share their ideas directly with us and the entire community of Dell users around the world."

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