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Dell and Linux: A Shotgun Wedding?

A Report from Michael Dell's Keynote Address at LinuxWorld Expo

  • August 15, 2000
  • By Paul Ferris
Michael Dell just gave the opening keynote to a pretty packed audience here. As a press member, I had a seat close enough that my impressions of his expressions were clear. This guy seems to seriously mean what he is talking about. He had a lot of good things to say about Linux and the community, and there were sentiments expressed to the contrary in regards to Dell's support of Linux.

Dell praised Linux for its low cost, speed of development and stability/reliability, citing Solaris as Linux's primary competitor. An attempt, in my opinion, to play down as much as possible any worry that Microsoft might have in this area. Dell itself uses Linux for drive image management, and according to Mr. Dell, has saved several million dollars using Linux instead of proprietary alternatives.

Dell pledged to support Linux across its entire product line, something he claimed no other PC vendor was doing. Dell's presentation showed that it has created a capital support organization that was being used to invest in Linux companies, and mentioned that it was looking for places to expand that interest. He claimed that Dell's Linux growth was 500 percent for the prior year.

The presentation was very impressive and I must add that Dell is a very good speaker. It was obvious, however, that the crowd had some anti-Dell sentiments--sentiments that are likely driven by the fact that Dell and Bill Gates are close friends, and that it's a commonly known fact that the Linux community has typically exhibited anti-Microsoft sentiments. (Editor note, Paul Ferris is well known for his anti-Microsoft stances, for example, read "The War".)

Dell, however, left at least this reporter feeling that the company was simply responding to increased customer demand for Linux--a good thing, if you ask me. Also, there were questions by members of the audience about Dell's (the company's) practice of charging more for Linux than for its identically equipped Windows products. Dell explained that the extra cost was simply the cost that Dell was including to pay for the extra support staff and other costs associated with a company supporting a product like Linux.

I have to interject a few opinions here (it's hard not to). Folks, we need companies like Dell, if Linux is going to make those desktop inroads we expect it to make. As long as Dell doesn't get into the Linux fragmentation business (something Michael Dell described as bad in an answer to another question), Linux will be fine. There were other sentiments expressed in the form of a question in regards to Dell not employing as many Linux community members as competitors IBM and VA/Linux.

Dell is not VA/Linux. It is not IBM. I got the impression that the main reason that Dell was supporting Linux was that customers were asking for it--no more, no less.

There were questions of a conspiratorial nature that indicated that Dell might be supporting Linux because it expected Microsoft to lose the DOJ trial, and that the Linux application market would expand with new Microsoft support of some kind.

Dell's answer to this question: "No" (followed by a lot of applause).

Dell didn't even mention Microsoft by name. The words "proprietary vendor" were used a lot, especially in reference to Dell's competition. Some indirect Sun bashing was evident as well. In general, Dell came across as a professional who saw the Linux market as an opportunity to expand into new growth areas. He understood the Linux community issues of religion and operating systems, and appeared pretty much unfazed by all of the posturing.

I'm glad too. We need companies like Dell, and as Dell's Linux sales climb, it will make supporting Linux a no-brainer for all of the other clone vendors.

As a community I think we need to view this as a positive sign. Dell may not be charged with the software developer mentality that a lot of us are--but let's face it: Dell is a hardware vendor, not a software vendor. It makes its money selling new hardware, not applications and so on.

To blur the lines, to mix things up, the software/hardware thing, is that such a good thing? Clearly it can work (Sun/Apple) but I cannot help but feel that Sun's operating system business in combination with its hardware business is still a conflict of interest, no matter how much it professes its openness and support of standards.

Sun has been making progress in this area (think of the change in licensing for its Star Office product and such), but possibly the thing condenses down to one word--focus. Dell is completely focussed on new hardware--Sun has to balance its operating systems software against new hardware sales. It makes for a complex equation, one that the Linux movement doesn't worry about and, for that matter, neither does Dell.

Linux is but a tangential item that its customers are asking for, and Dell is answering the call. The whole open source phenomenon could benefit from a prominent vendor like Dell selling new PCs with Linux reinstalled. Imagine if these PCs get popular. Imagine Dell and the Linux movement both benefitting.

Folks, it's not a black and white issue, and I'm not pretending to portray it as such, but we're winning serious ground and something like the growth seen here at the expo, something like the ground-swell of demand that Dell was facing--these are the indicators that radical change is occurring.

This is what we've been waiting for, in other words. Let's not complain about it, let's party.

Paul Ferris is the technology director for the Linux and Open Source channel at internet.com and has been covering Linux in the internet press for over 2 years. He can be reached at pferris@internet.com.

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