Dell's not really serious about Linux

Dell's not really serious about Linux

Summary: How to I feel about the Dell/Ubuntu systems? In a word: disappointed.

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When I initially found out that Dell was going to ship desktop and notebook PCs with Ubuntu installed I said that I was going to reserve judgment until more details emerged.  Talk is cheap and all that. 

I sure hope Dell can offer customers a way to upgrade these rigs to Windows if the need arisesWell, Dell's now released some details and if what Dell logoI'm reading is right, Dell's not really serious about Linux and is only releasing Ubuntu-powered Dell systems to appease the IdeaStorm masses.

I can sum up how I feel about this with one word: disappointed.

OK, I can't just say I'm disappointed and leave it at that.  Allow me to explain why I'm disappointed.

Here are the highlights, with my comments added underneath in italics:

  • The peripheral options offered with Ubuntu will be a subset of what is offered with other operating systems. We're offering the hardware options on each system that have the most mature and stable Linux driver support. These hardware options have been thoroughly tested by the Linux team here at Dell.

    It's good that Dell have chosen the most mature and stable Linux drivers, but I can't shake the feeling that peripheral choice is going to be very limited and not the most up-to-date gear.

  • We configure/install open source drivers for hardware, when possible. ... and when not possible, tough. 
  • We use partial open-source or closed source ("restricted" in Ubuntu terms) drivers where there is no equivalent open-source driver. This includes Intel wireless cards and Conexant modems. ... I'm already feeling like this is going to be a real mess when it comes to drivers.
  • We will have a wiki page on our linux.dell.com website that gives technical details of the supported systems, information on the device drivers used for system peripherals, details of our Ubuntu factory-installation, and information on the problems we found during our testing, with their fixes/workarounds.

    Good, but I don't like the idea of too many fixes and workarounds ... either this stuff is tested and will work or not.

  • We recommend Linux users buy Dell printers that have PostScript engines in them. The previous hyperlink lists those printers. You can also check in the Tech Specs tab for each printer on Dell.com show if it has PostScript or not. Again, fair enough I guess ...
  • For hardware options not offered with this release, we are working with the vendors of those devices to improve the maturity and stability of their associated Linux drivers. While this may not happen overnight, we do expect to have a broader range of hardware support with Linux over time. The lack of any fixed timescale here bothers me a lot.  I don't think anyone expects anything overnight, but some sort of timeline would be nice. Over time may just turn into never. 
  • At this time, we are not including any support for proprietary audio or video codecs that are not already distributed with Ubuntu 7.04. These include MPEG 1/2/3/4, WMA, WMV, DVD, Quicktime, etc. We are evaluating options for providing this support in the future. Now this is bad.  Really bad.  The bottom line here is that Dell are happy to ship systems with no ability to handle the kinds of common media that computer users will encounter.  Yeah, sure, this isn't an issue if you know what you're doing with a Linux box, but then again people with that kind of knowledge aren't usually the kind to give their money to Dell.  The innocents buying a Linux rig from Dell expecting a system with all the features they’ve come to expect from a PC, will be in for a real disappointment.

Dell aren't expecting to sell many of these Dell/Ubuntu rigs.  If the email sent to LinuxQuestions.org founder Jeremy Garcia by a Dell employee is right, there's little incentive in it for Dell to make too much of an effort:

We will be launching a Linux based OS (Ubuntu) on the E520, 1505 and XPS 410 starting next Thursday, 5/24. We expect these systems to be less than 1% of our OS mix for the entire year which is ~20,000 systems annually. [emphasis added]

I haven't said this before, but I sure hope Dell can offer customers a way to upgrade these rigs to Windows if the need arises.  Shipping systems that aren't able to handle some of the most basic media types currently on offer is a huge oversight and shows that Dell is more interested in making headlines over this than they are about promoting and supporting Linux.  My fear in all this is that just as people blamed Microsoft for issues arising on Dell systems because of shoddy drivers and applications, that the same thing is going to happen with Ubuntu.  I'd hate to see the guys behind Ubuntu getting burned over this, but I have a feeling that they might.

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Now all that's left to find out is the price. 

If you're looking for an easy route into Linux, buying a Ubuntu-powered Dell will mean that all the hardware works, but beyond that you're going to have a steep learning curve ahead of you to get the rig set up.

Thoughts?  Is Dell doing the right thing here?  Is Dell supporting and promoting open source or taking advantage?  Will Ubuntu be the focus for all the negativity because of the shortcomings of these systems?

Topics: Dell, Hardware, Linux, Open Source

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