What Dell customers want - Linux, no craplets, more RAM, no offshored tech support

Can Dell's Ideastorm help them bacK on track? Have they finally learned that the key to success is listening to customers?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Last week Dell launched a new site called Dell Ideastorm.  The idea behind Ideastorm is to leverage the "Web 2.0" wave to get feedback from web users on what they want to see from Dell.  Some of the ideas are pretty obvious and Dell could have found out what people wanted by doing a quick web search, but some of the other ideas are interesting and show how the PC industry is changing and how Dell's business model is lagging behind what their customers want.

There's a lot of excitement surrounding Dell's Ideastorm but the truth is that talk is cheapThe top "idea" is to have the option to have Linux pre-installed (Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE) on Dell machines (or offer CDs containing the distros of Linux to customers) and to set up the system so that it'll multi-boot with XP or Vista.  This idea has been "promoted" (if you're into Digg this is similar to "Digging" an article) over 31,000 times.

The second most popular "idea" is to have a OpenOffice pre-installed on Dell PCs instead of or alongside Microsoft Office/Works.  This has been promoted 16,000 times.

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At third place we have the "idea" that there should be an option to get a PC without any extra software installed on it, just the OS (in this case the person submitting the idea wanted Vista).  This has had nearly 14,500 promotes.  A similar idea is also at fifth place, this one getting 8,500 promotes.

At fourth place is what I think is the most interesting idea - a Dell Linux laptop.  The person submitting this idea went into some detail:

Sell a laptop with linux in which everything works.
1. Select a distro.
2. Work with the packager of the distro to make sure that you've selected components for the laptop that have all the necessary drivers.
3.. Develop a tight working relationship with the packager of the distro so that they have some sense that you're in it for the long haul.
4. Provide a service contract through the packager of the distro for support on the software.
5. Work with the packager of the distro to keep the distro/laptop functional, so that stupid kernel updates don't break the system.
6. Make it idiot proof like a Mac.

Other notable ideas are that 1GB of RAM should be the minimum offered (which, given the price of RAM makes a lot of sense) and that Dell should end their offshore tech support

So, what do Dell customers really want?  Choice.  You know, when you boil Dell's Ideastorm down to that, I'm pretty sure that if they'd asked that question to anyone here reading ZDNet blogs, they'd have got the answer and could have saved all that time and effort and got on giving people what they want.  But I think that that's the catch.  Ideastorm alone makes Dell look like it's listening to customers and doing something without actually having to change a single thing.  Most of these ideas for improvement have been what customers have been asking for (and sometimes screaming for) for years, but Dell's not been listening. 

Choice is a great thing, but choice also comes at a price.  Dell's business model revolves around offering the customer a limited number of choices when it comes to buying a PC.  More options (such as Linux or no craplets) adds steps to the PC's setup process, steps which cost money.

There's also a question of support.  Cut the argument whichever way you want, it's easier to support Microsoft products that it is to support Linux or OpenOffice.  While I'm pretty sure that there's a market for a PC running free, open source software (although I'm not sure how big), I'm also pretty sure that customers will still want support.  Releasing Linux on the world through a major OEM like Dell might seem Utopian, but it’s risky.  How's Dell going to adequately explain to users the difference between Windows and Linux?  What warnings will it issue about software and hardware compatibility?  How will they handle the "this Linux thing doesn't look anything like Windows?" question?  Remember that people buying based on price might not be making informed choices or understand what an Operating System is.

Maybe a better way to introduce choice and open source software is to offer PCs with no OS installed which would allow users to install their own favorite distro (after all, if you can't install Linux yourself, my guess is that you're not ready for it anyway) and Windows-based PCs with Firefox installed (that's another post).

As for non-offshored tech support, that would be another move that's going to cost Dell money and another one of those "if you want it, it'll hit you where you sit" ideas. 

There's a lot of excitement surrounding Dell's Ideastorm but the truth is that talk is cheap.  Asking people what they want and giving it to them are two very different things.  While initiating a discussion is a good start, I've watched Dell over-commit and under-deliver so many times in the past that I'm not ready to hold my breath just yet.

Thoughts?  Which ideas might help boost Dell's bottom line?  Which would make you buy from Dell?

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