Dell Ponders a Linux to Love

Chairman prefers to let users pick their Linux flavor.

Michael Dell, chairman of Dell, said he believes in offering Linux on the desktop, server and workstation. What he doesnt believe in, for now, is giving Linux full support on the desktop.

In an interview with, Dell explained his approach to Linux support. "People are always asking us to support Linux on the desktop," said Dell, "but the question is: Which Linux are you talking about?"

The Austin, Texas, company has had an on-and-off relationship with desktop Linux support. Dell said the company "tried that with Red Hat on the OptiPlex and Dimension lines, but we had too many people not buying and saying we picked the wrong one."

By 2001, Dell was no longer offering a Linux desktop to its retail customers.

The biggest difficulty with putting Linux on the desktop is that the various flavors of the operating system make it hard to support, said Dell.

"If we say we like Ubuntu, then people will say we picked the wrong one. If we say we like and support Ubuntu, Novell, Red Hat and Xandros, then someone would ask us, Why dont you support Mandriva? The challenge we have with picking one is that we think wed disenchant the other distributions supporters," said Dell.

To Dell, the issue isnt that there are too many Linux desktop distributions, its that "theyre all different, they all have supporters and none of them can claim a majority of the market. Our conclusion is to do them all and let the customer decide."

That approach thus far has worked with Dells * Series, a set of desktops that allow the buyer to pick the flavor of Linux.

The OptiPlex * Series for business users is priced starting at $453 without a display, and the lower-end Dimension * Series for small-business users is priced starting at $359 without a monitor. Dell doesnt install an operating system on either system. Instead, the company supplies a copy of the open-source FreeDOS operating system with each PC. Dell will, however, install a customers Linux choice on custom factory orders of 50 or more PCs.

Meanwhile, the companys sales of its * Series PCs have been going well. "N Series demand is growing rapidly," said Dell. "Its a global business with sales throughout the world. Its growth is pretty close to the market penetration of Linux, which is about one and [a] half percent of the desktop market."

Where Dell does offer a desktop computer with Linux is in its Dell Precision * Series low-end workstation line. These come with Red Hats Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS 4 preinstalled.

While close enough to PCs to be called PCs, these systems have an entirely different target market. Instead of the small business and home market that the OptiPlex and Dimension lines are aimed at, the Precision * Series "is meant for scientific and engineering users," said Dell. In short, these boxes are meant for the traditional Unix workstation market.

So, what would it take to get Dell to offer fully supported Linux on its complete line of desktops?

"We love Linux, and were doing our best to support the Linux community," Dell said. "We see lots of opportunity there. If the Linux desktops could converge at their cores, such a common platform would make it easier to support. Or, if there was a leading or highly preferred version that a majority of users would want, wed preload it."

In the end, Dell said, "we see [the Linux desktop] as a customer-driven activity. If customers want it, well, Dell will give it to them."

One company has not played a role in Dells Linux decisions. "Microsoft has not talked to us about Linux. If they did, I wouldnt care. Its none of their business," said Dell.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is the editor of