I use Linux desktops every day in my home office. Specifically, I run Xandros 2.5 on one of my desktops and my main work laptop, and SuSE 9.1 on my top workstation. When it comes to desktop Linux, I dont just talk about it, I use it.
But Im about as Unix- and Linux-savvy a guy as youre going to find. I also actually find installing new operating systems kind of fun. OK, so Im a little weird.
I also know, though, after talking with businesses, resellers and Joe and Jane User for years, that most people would rather listen to a “best of” recording of nails being dragged over chalkboards than replace their old operating system with a new one.
This isnt just switching from Windows to Linux. Ive found people still running Windows 2000 instead of XP who wanted to upgrade, and had the hardware to do it, but simply didnt want to go to the trouble and expense of making the jump.
The moral of the story is that if Linux is ever really going to grab a sizable chunk of the desktop market, it needs to be preinstalled.
Now, some systems out there already come with Linux. Perhaps the best known of them comes from Linspire, the operating system company formerly known as Lindows.
You still can buy Microtel machines with Lindows at Wal-Mart for less than $300. The machines are underpowered—128MBs of RAM—from where I sit, but for a home user who wants a cheap introduction to Linux and doesnt want to worry with installing a new operating system, you cant beat it.
I have one myself, and while it doesnt suit my needs as a power users power user, I wouldnt hesitate for a moment to drop one on the desk of most home users.
If you look around, you can find other preinstalled Linux desktop PCs, but youre not going to find them in every CompUSA or Office Depot. Indeed, even Linux hardware vendors such as Penguin Computing are far better known for servers than for high-end workstation lines. Finding a midrange Linux desktop PC just isnt that easy.
Now, there are a few white box vendors out there that deliver Linux desktops and notebooks that are neither low-end systems nor high-end workstations. Element Computer, for example, offers both a business notebook and a midrange integrated display/PC with its own house brand of Linux. In fact, theres a whole marketplace out there waiting for small system integrators who want to make a name for themselves as Linux desktop box providers.
Thats good news for resellers who want to take their shot at greatness, but its not easy setting up a successful Linux PC hardware company. Just ask the vets of VA Linux, which eventually left the PC business to become OSTF (Open Source Technology Group), the parent company to Slashdot and NewsForge.
With PC prices hovering at all-time lows, managing enough profit margin to keep a new PC vendors nose above water isnt a job for the faint of heart.
-Name Vendors”> Besides, these days most businesses want to buy their computers from a brand-name vendor. Unfortunately, even the ones that support Linux do a lousy job of supporting desktop Linux.
For example, it was only a few weeks ago at LinuxWorld that HP finally announced that it would be shipping a laptop with Linux: the Compaq nx5000. The nx5000 is now available with Novells SuSE Linux 9.1 and OpenOffice.org preinstalled by HP. You get a choice of two CPUs: a 1.2GHz Celeron or a 1.8GHz Pentium M. The laptop also supports up to 2GB of 266MHz DDR SDRAM, and is offered with 30-80GB of hard drive. Youll find it for sale at HP resellers in the low $1,000 range.
Sounds nice, doesnt it? But when you look on the nx5000product page, one of the first things youll see is a large announcement that “HP recommends Microsoft Windows XP Professional.” With support like this, who needs enemies?
Still, at least HP has one preinstalled Linux system. IBM keeps being coy about Linux preloads. You can get almost anything from IBM with Linux, but its never as easy as getting a desktop or laptop with Windows.
And even when you do arrange to get a preloaded Linux IBM PC, it may not support all of the supplied hardware. For example, you can get the ThinkPad T40 with SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0, but it doesnt support either the supplied modem or Wi-Fi equipment.
Now, I know the modem isnt supported because its a WinModem—a cheap kind of modem, common as dirt, that requires Windows to run at all—but come on IBM, youre Big Blue! Use some of your business leverage to get the Wi-Fi vendors to finally open up their devices APIs so we can finally get broad Wi-Fi support for Linux instead of the hit-or-miss Wi-Fi support that Linux is stuck with today.
In fact, hardware vendors and Linux distributors, listen up. If you want the Linux desktop to really go anywhere, you need to partner up and get preinstalled Linux desktops out there on the street and into resellers inventories. So long as we rely on users and IT departments to upgrade their PCs to advance Linux, Linux on the desktop will be stuck as a niche desktop player.
eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.