HP breaks new ground with Linux desktop PC

The hardware maker is now offering Mandrake Linux as an option on its business desktops, creating a new opportunity for the open-source operating system
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

With a PC announced on Wednesday, Hewlett-Packard has made it a bit easier to buy Linux pre-installed on a desktop computer -- a seemingly small step that nevertheless would have been unlikely to occur as recently as two years ago.

HP introduced the HP Compaq Business Desktop d220 Microtower, a machine aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, with either Windows or MandrakeSoft's distribution of Linux pre-installed. HP is also offering other desktops pre-installed with Linux, including the recently announced HP Compaq d530.

PC buyers take it for granted that they will be able to buy a machine pre-installed with Windows, but, until recently, Linux was only available pre-installed on servers, workstations, or on desktops ordered in large quantities. HP's move is a win for those who argue Linux could be a genuine competitor for Microsoft's operating system on business desktops.

Linux on the desktop has had its advocates for years, but only now are businesses beginning to buy installations of the open-source operating system as an alternative to Windows. A recent success was the City of Munich's decision to purchase 14,000 Linux desktops to replace its ageing Windows NT machines. IDC expects Linux to surpass the Mac OS as the No. 2 desktop sometime this year.

HP is offering Mandrake Linux 9.1, which boasts ease-of-use as a selling point, as an alternative to Windows on its desktop machines, some of which cost less than £300. The d220 costs $349 (about £210), and will eventually replace HP's $399 HP Compaq Evo d310v. HP did not have a release schedule for the d220 in the UK, but other desktops, including the d530, are available in Europe.

Linux has been available for some time pre-installed on servers and workstations, which boast better features than desktops for a higher price.

For a time, Dell offered its desktop PCs with the option of Red Hat Linux as an operating system, but the offer was discontinued in 2001. Microsoft executives touted this move internally as a win for the company's anti-Linux strategy, according to emails later revealed in the course of Microsoft's antitrust trial.

Dell still offers Linux on some configurations of workstations, but on desktops and notebooks it is only available pre-installed in batches of 50 or more, through Dell's Custom Factory Install service.

Dell's move to disband its Linux business unit, and later to stop offering Linux pre-installed on desktops, became more controversial in March of 2002 when documents revealed in a court case suggested that Microsoft pressure may have played a part in the decision.

Attorneys representing several US states presented the emails to US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in the course of arguing for stronger sanctions against Microsoft, which had been convicted as a monopolist in an earlier decision.

Attorneys introduced a summer 2000 memo from Microsoft's former OEM executive Joachim Kempin to chairman Bill Gates that said: "I'm thinking of hitting the OEMs harder than in the past with anti-Linux. ... They should do a delicate dance." Those who failed to dance to Microsoft's tune would be denied crucial source code, according to the states' attorney, Steven Kuney of Williams & Connolly.

Another memo, sent to chief executive Steve Ballmer in the spring of 2000, called for Dell to be pressured over its support for Linux, Kuney said. The memo charged it was "untenable that a Windows Premier Partner would be promoting Linux". A later memo from early 2001 detailed how Dell had disbanded its Linux business unit and laid off the unit's head. Similar memos spoke of Microsoft's alleged pressure on Compaq -- now part of HP -- to "meet demand but not help create demand" for Linux, according to Kuney.

As part of Microsoft's antitrust settlement, the company is now forbidden to pressure PC vendors who offer alternative operating systems.

Dell attributed its decision to stop selling pre-installed Linux desktops to slow sales. In an interview earlier this year, chief executive Michael Dell pointed out that Dell promotes Linux for workstations and servers, and said buyers could purchase an operating-system-free machine and install Linux on that.

Smaller PC vendors, such as Evesham in the UK, have also recently begun offering Linux desktop machines, and Lindows.com sells a Linux distribution specifically aimed at consumer desktops.

For all your GNU/Linux and open source news, from the latest kernel releases to the newest distributions, see ZDNet UK's Linux News Section.

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