Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dell and how to manage GNU/Linux support

Here is an article which talks about the massive response on Dell IdeaStorm to the idea of having pre-installed GNU/Linux on Dell desktop and laptop machines:

Why Dell and other major hardware vendors won't do desktop Linux preinstallation

The article says that Dell are unlikely to do anything serious with GNU/Linux because of certification and support issues and a number of other writers are suggesting the same thing, but I think that's 180 degrees wrong. I happen to think that both certification and support would be quite a bit easier for GNU/Linux than for Microsoft Windows. This is not to say that either certification or support are trivial things.

Certification is made easier because the Dell team get to see all the source code. They can either sign NDAs with hardware vendors or persuade them open source their code. They can choose to go with vendors that make this easier for them. Checking testing and debugging are much easier if there are no black box components in the mix and the level of confidence in the certification can be much higher too.

Now support. First let us understand that Dell is providing support for their hardware, not for operating systems or applications (though I don't see any reason why Dell should not sell consultancy services if that is something the market wanted). What Dell need to do in a support situation is to be able to clearly demonstrate that their hardware is functioning as it should ... or not. The problem that Dell has is that they are invariably trying to figure out the state of the hardware through a very murky lens - the working environment as "enhanced" and "tweaked" by a customer. Support could be made much easier if Dell ship a live CD with every machine. If you want phone support you must first boot the live CD. The live CD would fire up the version of the GNU/Linux distribution shipped with the computer and would enable the support person to confidently work through diagnostics with the customer.

So, both certification and support can cheaper and better with GNU/Linux.

The other question that is thrown up is: what distribution should Dell ship with? Really, we should not care as long as the drivers on the live CD are accessible. If I like the distribution that came installed (or if this is a machine for my mum), I'll go with that. If I want a different disto I will install the one I like along with the drivers from that live CD (these are just Linux drivers, there need not be any distro magic). This situation will encourage a whole range of support options to come along. For example, if SuSE happen the be the distro that Dell go with, I bet Red Hat, Ubuntu etc etc will come up with a very easy way for their customers to install their systems using the drivers from the Dell CD.

So I don't think Dell need to stress out about which distro to go with. Just pick the one that, in their view, is the best fit for their customers and go with that. Perhaps review the choice quarterly or yearly.

In summary, I can't think of a way in which this is not a win win for Dell and anyone who wants to have a Dell system running a GNU/Linux distribution. If Dell are holding back, it can only because political forces are at play.

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