Optional Windows? Hmmm...

If I had a few good IT folks in my district who were really comfortable administering Linux systems, then I just might have jumped at the major cost savings of HP's so-called "Alternate OS" configured desktops.

A couple weeks back, I read Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' article "Dell - Make Windows optional extra on all your PCs ".  Then tonight I finally had the chance to read Marc Wagner's post "Why Linux will not displace Windows".  They both make a lot of sense.  In fact, HP has started offering FreeDOS as an option on many of its desktops at a discount of roughly $100-$150 per machine.  While FreeDOS is not Linux, it does give users the option of something "not-Windows." 

That is, of course, one of the biggest draws of the open-source crowd.  It's free!  We're in ed tech, so we don't have any money!  It's a match made in heaven, right?  I've spent my share of time blogging about my love-hate relationship with Linux (for any of you who might have missed my brilliant little bits of prose, I haven't met a modern Linux distro that I don't really like, but haven't the time or energy to learn it well enough to administer an enterprise of Linux desktops, so invariably fall back to Windows, which I can administer until the cows come home, despite its many shortcomings).  Bottom line, though, if I had a few good IT folks in my district who were more comfortable with Linux (at an administrative level) than I, then I just might have jumped at the major cost savings of HP's so-called "Alternate OS" configured desktops.

If Dell (or Lenovo, or Acer, or whomever) could do the same (and make a real effort to ensure that their hardware was compatible with a variety of open-source operating systems), then those districts for whom Linux might represent a cost-effective choice could really benefit.  As Marc Wagner points out, we all know that Linux runs as well or better than Windows on new hardware, but it hardly makes sense to be forced to use a whitebox vendor, roll your own, or, worse yet, wipe out Windows on a new first-tier PC to get Linux running if you choose that platform for your school(s).

Of course, Marc also points out, very rightly, that there is no trouble-free way to buy a PC and have it up and running a non-Windows OS just as easily as I can buy an HP or Dell and have it running Windows in a few minutes on my users' desks.  Mac (and it's lack of entry-level hardware) aside,  it's very hard for the average district to adopt an alternative platform, whatever the benefits might be. 

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes claims that shipping PCs without crapware (and the Windows software on which it runs) will increase the cost of PCs because software vendors subsidize PC prices.  While he may be right, HP seems to be doing it for less.  The FreeDOS OS they're shipping now is more a platform for installing another non-Windows OS than a legitimate choice for mass deployment.  It's certainly a start and I applaud the choice offered to enterprises, although I wonder how many buyers actually take advantage.  Obviously I didn't.  What I'd really love is to see some solid partnering between major OEMs and the open-source community.  Widespread OEM support would certainly breed greater software support.  Ports of high-demand software to Linux would lead to more widespread adoption and so on.

These are all great ideas and I hope the "optional Windows" paradigm takes off.  More importantly, though, I hope it leads to the kind of support for non-Windows operating systems at the OEM level that would be needed to create real competition for Microsoft.  Many of the improvements incorporated in Vista are a direct response to the potential advantages offered by Apple and the open-source community.  Imagine what we might see if Microsoft actually had to fight for market share.

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