IT professionals are being forced to adopt Microsoft's operating systems — even if they tell their PC supplier they want a system free of Microsoft software, ZDNet UK's research has revealed.
ZDNet's reporters posed as undercover buyers to identify the policy of the top-five PC vendors in terms of supplying systems without an operating system, known as naked PCs. A naked PC gives IT professionals freedom to install the operating system of their choice.
But the ZDNet investigation showed that none of the five manufacturers would sell any PCs without Windows, our reporters found.
The reasons — or excuses — were varied.
Acer said it would give our reporter a refund of £30 for not using Windows, but would only make a refund if we drove to its Plymouth "repair" centre. In contrast to other reports, Dell refused to refund the Windows software if it went unused. Instead it offered to cancel the shipping charge of £50 as a compromise.
We backed up our undercover enquiries with official calls to every one of the five vendors. Two of the five — Acer and Toshiba — would not discuss the matter with us. Dell, HP and Lenovo claimed it was possible to buy naked PCs from their company — but our attempts to follow their guidance to buy one proved impossible.
Dell and HP both claimed it was possible to buy a naked PC from them, but we were unable to buy one from either vendor. Lenovo told us it sells PCs with pre-installed Linux, but it could not tell us how we could buy such a system.
Microsoft has placed considerable pressure on a number of PC vendors not to sell systems without Windows. Critics have suggested that vendors have yielded to such pressure because they are afraid of losing their bulk purchasing discount with Microsoft. Others have suggested that it would cost PC vendors considerably more in unit costs to produce naked PCs.
Ranjit Atwal, Gartner principal analyst, is pessimistic about the future for naked PCs. "The market for Linux is probably not big enough for them [suppliers] to go down that route," said Atwal, adding that he thought the number of users wanting to use Linux at the desktop was "in the small single digits".
"To do that [provide systems without Windows] costs them money," he argued.
Yet many customers have demanded naked PCs. A user forum set up in February by Dell has been inundated with such requests.
While customers find it difficult to get naked PCs, some of the vendors are beginning to apply more thought to loading Linux on PCs for both high-street buyers and corporates. HP is one such company. It recently began a feasibility study that tested the public's appetite for the operating system.
"We carried out a test marketing exercise and made Linux PCs available to users," explained Peter Murray, director of enterprise server and storage at HP. "It was disappointing and we had very little interest. We looked at the exercise and we think we may have got the marketing wrong so we are trying it again."
Murray believes there is a market for Linux in the UK but is also aware of the issues facing any large supplier who wants to make Linux boxes available. "It means diverting production lines and that is a lot of money and so we have to prove the business case," he said. However, he made it clear that he is enthusiastic about the idea and wants to make it work. "We just have to show it is worthwhile," he said.
Dell's position is less clear. The company has said it is keen to promote Linux and systems ready to run with Red Hat Linux are available on its site, but only in the US. While Linux is not available to UK users, Dell is currently assessing user interest on its own site and is asking for input from potential Dell/Linux users.
We have used the latest figures on PC sales from Gartner to identify the top five vendors. We detail our findings one vendor at a time over the following five pages.
Additional reporting by Colin Barker of ZDNet UK.
A trip to Plymouth with Acer
Acer did not return our call seeking to clarify its policy on naked PCs and whether it would offer a refund on Windows software.
However, we called its customer call centre, and recorded the following conversation:
ZDNet: I'm wondering whether you supply notebooks without Windows software.
Acer: I'm afraid not, no.
No? Nothing at all?
Although we can do the refund for the operating system as per the OEM licensing.
So if I get a machine with Windows on, you'll give me the refund?
There is a refund process, yes. I don't know the exact terms of it. You'd need to speak to tech support, unfortunately, but it is entirely possible. I don't know if it's financially viable or not, but it is possible.
Tech support wanted to send us an email to explain its policy. In the email Acer said: "These items [the notebook] will need to be returned to your local Acer Repair Centre in order to allow us to remove the Windows Operating System and refund you for it. Acer will refund you in accordance with the value of the operating system shipped: XP Home = €30 and XP Professional = €60. Shipment of the product to our repair centre and back to you after the removal of Windows will be at your own expense. As this is not a manufacture defect and not covered by the warranty, you would have to organise your own courier when the machine is ready to be sent back to you. Following the refund, any remaining software support on your Acer warranty will be void."
Acer's sole repair centre in the UK is in Plymouth.
Free shipping from Dell
Dell told ZDNet UK: "The Dell n Series solution for notebook and desktop PCs is designed for those customers who do not want to be burdened with the cost of an installed OS, and would prefer either to load Linux or their own licensed software. Dell's Latitude notebooks, OptiPlex desktops and Precision workstations offer the n Series solution on all of their systems in EMEA. n Series has been available in the UK for UK customers for over four years."
The company said customers should call its sales call centre to order a naked PC, and that it was impossible to do it online.
Dell told us that if a customer purchased a PC with Windows and subsequently did not use the software, no refund would be made. "It is not Dell policy to issue refunds," a Dell spokeswoman told us.
Our reporter found a completely contradictory response from Dell's customer call centre. The conversation was as follows:
ZDNet: I'm looking at buying a notebook. I just wondered whether you can supply a notebook without Windows. Can you do a Latitude or something like that without Windows?
Dell: What type of laptop is that?
A Latitude looks good.
Just a moment, sir. Which model of Latitude is that?
I just wondered whether I can get a Latitude without Windows on it?
Yeah, I mean which model is that in the Latitude?
I don't know. I was hoping you would be able to tell me.
Neither of the laptops on Dell doesn't come with any Linux on it.
OK, but I can install Linux myself. Would you just be able to ship it without Windows?
We'll send XP Pro in that. You just need to uninstall that.
I don't want Windows at all. Can you send it without Windows?
Without Windows. Just a moment sir... I've spoken to my manager regarding this. I'm sorry, sir, every computer from Dell does have an operating system in there.
So there's no way of getting it...?
You can uninstall it, sir. If you want, I can give you a discount of operating system price on the computer and give it to you.
On the grounds I don't use XP?
All you need to do is after it's been rescheduled, just format the computer and everything has been lost sir, that's it. If you do that, I won't charge you anything for operating system.
OK. That's cool. What have you got then?
[We discuss the precise specifications.]
The operating system is XP Pro. I'll give you a £50 discount.
OK, so I don't have to pay that £50 in the first place. You'll just knock that off, will you?
£50 is not required. One more thing, sir. Microsoft Office. Did you get any information about the latest ones, Microsoft Office.
No, I'm going to run OpenOffice, so I don't need Microsoft Office.
So the price of this computer — which is a Latutide D520, we call it — £499, which is excluding VAT, sir.
£499 ex VAT. Do I have to pay for delivery on top of that?
I'll give you a free delivery charge. Delivery is £50 pounds extra and I'm getting rid of that for that [lack of] XP Pro option. I'm adding XP Pro but I'm giving you the free shipping offer on that XP Pro, which is £50 exactly. The total price comes to £587.
I'm just wary that I'm not infringing anything from Microsoft in getting the XP. So if I uninstall it, it's fine is it?
That's it, sir. You don't need to do anything until you get the computer. You just need to uninstall the computer specifications. You have an option in the control panel that you can format the computer and then you can download Linux if you want.
HP's elusive FreeDOS version
An HP spokeswoman told us: "HP offer desktops with no operating system if requested by the customer (available via direct or indirect)."
The spokeswoman added that no refund would be made even if the customer declined the End User License Agreement (EULA). "If a customer does not require this [Windows] when placing the order and purchases an operating system, HP will not refund regardless of the End User License Agreement for Windows," she said.
Ian Dent, Linux Business Manager for HP, added more information on HP's policy. "There are two options: PCs with Windows and a version with FreeDOS." Dent said there was no minimum order, and the FreeDOS PCs could be ordered through any of HP's sales channels.
ZDNet UK asked HP for a URL from which readers could buy a FreeDOS-based PC. HP promised us the URL, but has not sent it.
HP's call centre told us that all machines come with Windows, and that it was not possible to buy any PCs without Windows.
Lenovo: Refunds not possible
In an email, a Lenovo spokesperson told us: "Lenovo has designated two 'Linux' ready models which ship with a DOS operating system allowing the user to install Linux on a clean hard disk. I can confirm that there are two Linux models: the ThinkPad T60p UT08YUK and the ThinkPad T60p UT08ZUK."
But despite repeated requests, Lenovo could not say how customers could buy either of these models.
Lenovo adopted the same policy as Dell, HP and Toshiba over claiming a refund on unused Windows software. The spokesperson added: "In line with the licence agreement, and because the software is pre-installed, Lenovo does not offer refunds for those looking to remove the software."
Lenovo's call centre could not identify any machines with a clean hard disk, only those with Windows. It said it used to give a refund for customers who returned Windows software, but said refunds now "won't be possible".
No refunds from Toshiba
Toshiba did not return our calls seeking to clarify its policy on naked PCs, and whether it would offer a refund on Windows software.
We had the following conversation with its customer call centre, which clarified that it would sell only PCs with Windows.
ZDNet: I just want a notebook without Windows. Can you supply me one without Windows?
Toshiba: I can't I'm afraid. It's always going to be pre-installed.
It's got to have Windows?
If I'm paying for Windows, can I get a refund on that? I'm not going to use it.
Obviously the Windows, it's sold at a certain price. The price is considerate of the fact it comes with the operating system pre-installed.
But I'm not going to use it. I'm going to turn down the licensing agreement for it.
Yeah. There's no way of sending the machine with different specs, I'm afraid.
OK, but can I get a refund from you for not using Windows?
Erm, no you wouldn't be able to, I'm afraid.
Right. So even though I'm not using it I've still got to take it and I can't get any money back?
I'm afraid we only sell the machines as they are.
OK, so it's take XP or Vista basically.
That's the case, I'm afraid.