In recent weeks, there’s been quite a bit of buzz surrounding Linux and its chances for earning a spot as a preloaded option on the client PCs sold by major computer OEMs. Buzzing most loudly has been Dell’s IdeaStorm customer suggestions site, which has turned up a ton of support for the notion–even though many are discounting this support as the ditto-headed diggs of Linux zealots who can’t be counted on to put their credit cards where their clicks are. Can Linux preloads contribute meaningfully to the sales and success of a major PC OEM? I believe they can, provided that these OEMs keep in mind the mantra that’s driven Linux to where it is today: free. Now, lest you chide me, pointing out that acquisition fees are only one part of a cost calculation, and so on, it’s not the monetary outlay that I find most costly. Beyond acquisition costs, the greatest benefits of a free-as-in-free operating system, versus a proprietary OS like Windows, are related to flexibility: no hassles when getting updates (WGA); no hassles for reinstalling your OS (recovery disks); if you want to put your OS on a second machine, you’re allowed; if you want to give a copy to your friend, you’re allowed. One of the problems with the limited forays into Linux preloading we’ve seen from major OEMs so far is that these initiatives have focused on Linux distributions, which, like Windows, carry per-system fees. What’s tougher still is that, unlike Windows, these distributions–namely, RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop)–require that new fees be paid each year to keep up with security and bug-fix updates. Obviously, there’s a place for RHEL and SLED and their pricing structures, but as client operating systems, I don’t believe they have what it takes to displace Windows while asserting per-system licensing limits similar to those with which Microsoft saddles users. The free versions of Red Hat’s and Novell’s Linux operating systems–Fedora and OpenSUSE, respectively–aren’t particularly well-suited to go up against Windows, either, due to the very short life cycles of both distributions. Red Hat or Novell could extend support terms for their per-system-fee-free distributions, but as long as these companies hope to bring in license dollars from their enterprise distributions, it would seem that neither will be inclined to do so. I’ll offer to Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo the same advice I tried to hand Oracle when Larry Ellison and company were shopping for a Linux distribution to ingest: Look to Ubuntu. In my opinion, Ubuntu Linux is the only distribution ready to go head-to-head with Windows as an OEM preload option. In its LTS (Long-Term Support) incarnation, Ubuntu Linux is slated to receive updates for three years. Ubuntu’s Debian GNU/Linux foundation is strong, with excellent software management tools and an effective model for organizing volunteer resources that has helped Ubuntu amass what’s probably the broadest catalog of ready-to-install software of any distribution. As with Oracle–which ended up simply rebranding RHEL–Dell and its OEM rivals seem tied for now to the enterprise distribution track. Dell has talked about certifying some of its systems to run SLED, which seems tailored less to spur new sales than it is to anger Microsoft as little as possible. Still, the work that Dell does to make its machines run well with SUSE will, through the workings of free software, raise the tide of Linux compatibility overall. Time will tell whether it’s Dell–or one of its rivals–that ends up profiting best from that tide.