Revised WinXP policy dooms Linux desktop prospects without real OEM marketing efforts

It should come as no surprise that HP is considering expanding its Linux PC efforts, given that its top rival is selling Ubuntu Linux PCs in the U.S and Microsoft is trying to kill any potential interest in them.

It should come as no surprise that HP is considering expanding its Linux PC efforts, given that its top rival is selling Ubuntu Linux PCs in the U.S and Microsoft is trying to kill any potential interest in them.

HP began selling Red Hat Linux PCs in Australia and is reportedly considering expanding that pilot program to other nations, including the U.S.

Contacted yesterday, an HP spokeswoman denied that the PC giant confirmed any such plan to media outlets. But she would not deny the reports. HP, like any other company, is constantly reviewing its PC strategies, she would only say.

That doesn't shed any new light on the authenticity of those reports. But it's no stretch to think HP is considering another drive at that market since Dell began selling pre-installed Ubuntu Linux PCs from its own web site in late May.

HP's Personal Systems Group, after all, would be irresponsible not to at least consider an expansion of that pilot program as it keeps an eye on Dell's progress with its Linux desktop effort.

Although the Linux desktop holds only about two percent market share, and is projected to gain little more share over the next year, Ubuntu's sudden rise in the consumer market offers new hope for Linux advocates, who year after year have been disappointed by the inability of the Linux desktop to enjoy even some portion of the success of Linux on the server.

Microsoft, for its part, continues to virtually own the desktop operating system and Office suite desktop market. Still, its recent market behavior signals that it is not taking any chances when it comes to Linux, or any other threat, on its prized desktop.

Microsoft's revised Windows XP downgrade rights policy that quietly went into effect this summer, for example, is designed to kill two birds with one stone: jumpstart PC sales and prevent Linux desktop vendors from exploiting its Vista headaches.

Lackluster Vista sales and resulting pressure from OEM partners likely had more to do with Microsoft's decision than anything else. And the company isn't really giving away anything, at least on paper: Vista Business and Vista Ultimate customers have always had the right to use their existing downgrade rights to Windows XP.

Microsoft has made strides at bowing to customer demands in recent year. Still, the fact that Microsoft has backed down on such a critical licensing policy -- when customers upgrade to new Windows (and Office) products -- makes one wonder if Dell's recent Ubuntu Linux PC announcement or HP's Red Hat Linux PC deal in Australia (or even IBM's Symphony OpenOffice launch) isn't raising a few eyebrows in Redmond.

Even as the company's strategies evolve to address what it considers to be more significant future threats by Web 2.0 services such as Google Apps, it is not be wise for Microsoft to dismiss the threat of Linux or any open source software on the PC desktop of today, particularly as the compatibility of OpenOffice with Microsoft Office improves and big names like Novell, Red Hat, IBM and several European governments apply more and more pressure to break its iron grip on the desktop PC.

Thing is, I'm not so sure Microsoft should be worried at all.

Unless Dell and HP step up to the plate with real marketing efforts for desktop Linux, it's doubtful that the open source desktop will gain any traction in corporations and in the mass market.

I can say this from personal experience. I have been in PC buying mode for the past several weeks and would not even be aware that Linux existed as an option on the Dell desktop if I did not write about it as part of my work as a journalist.

On Dell's main page, for instance, the only reference to the Ubuntu Linux offering is listed in small print, under the Essentials Link category, and ironically, under the "Still looking for Windows XP?" option, as Open-Source PCs.

Honestly, how many consumers know what that means? Consumers are hardly aware that Vista is out there. They may have heard of Ubuntu, but Dell makes no mention of Ubuntu Linux on its main page or in its promotions.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's relaxed policy on Windows XP is featured prominently in a colorful box on the main page.

Dell is free to design its web site and ads as it wishes, but its marketeers must know that its Linux option is invisible to ordinary consumers and only visible to those who follow the industry closely. So what's the point?

If I were an uninformed consumer who heard rumors that Windows Vista isn't all it was cracked up to be, and I went to Dell's web site for more information, I would surmise that Dell is advocating Windows XP as a substitute. I would not see Ubuntu Linux, or Linux, for that matter, as an alternative operating system choice. I would only see an option dubbed 'Open Source PCs.

The point is not to demonize Dell, for the company is at least doing its part to promote choice of operating systems on the PC desktop. But again, without a serious marketing effort by Dell, HP or Lenovo in the U.S. to promote Linux on the desktop, it will likely continue to flounder.

Novell, Red Hat and IBM can boast all they want about the benefits of open source software on the desktop (and Michael Dell can play with Ubuntu at home all he wants) but it means little without the active backing of and marketing of major PC manufacturers.