Linux takes another step

Dell is going to start selling computers with Linux instead of Windows. Here's the announcement. I'll try not to jump on the couches with excitement.

Ubuntu teaser from Dell

Earlier this year Dell did a poll asking what customers want. Turns out they want Linux. Having Dell sell Linux boxes will make a big difference in helping Linux gain acceptance among regular consumers. They haven't actually announced Linux models yet, but they do have instructions on how to install Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. Toshiba is also considering selling Linux boxes. Meanwhile, a Microsoft employee blogs about running Linux at home.

Is this going to be the Year of Linux?

Hard to say. Rabid fanboys have been predicting it for seven years now. And it hasn't happened yet. Dell won't even announce its Linux models until the end of May. That gives us little better than half a year to make this the Year of Linux. Six months from introduction to ubiquity? That's a tough sell.

Especially since Linux still suffers from three major shortfalls:

  1. Hardware support
  2. Software support
  3. Customer support
  4. Advertising

Hardware support has made vast improvements. After having installed Kubuntu on four different laptops (including my wife's), I can tell you that it actually runs better out of the box than Windows does. But, when Toshiba or Dell sells you a laptop with Windows pre-installed, it comes with all the proprietary drivers for its funky hardware. Get all those running, and hardware support is actually better on Windows than it is on Linux. But we're getting close.

There are also serious gaps when it comes to software. Try to talk to someone about Linux's software to a non-believer for five minutes without saying "you can also reboot back into Windows." Linux has a basic productivity suite--office applications, web surfing, email, music, video, and photos--but beyond that it gets rocky. Try balancing your checkbook or doing your taxes. My wife still has to reboot into Windows for those things. I still have to reboot to sync my palm pilot with Yahoo or load my non-iPod mp3 player. As long as you have to reboot into Windows for necessary tasks, Linux is not a fully functional solution.

And, of course, customer support is abysmal. Sure, there are great help forums and how-to lists, and odds are you know someone you can call to help you. But when you buy a commercial Windows machine, you can call professional tech support any time of the day or night. Granted, the guy on the other end will have a thick Indian accent and may not be very helpful, and odds are you'll call someone you know to get help anyway, but general consumers take a lot of comfort in knowing that help line is there. Unfortunately, Dell isn't going to help this. They'll sell Linux, but their customer service won't support it. They'll tell you to check . Linux won't gain mainstream acceptance on the desktop until there's mainstream support for it.

Finally, Linux will always be drowned out by the big boys. How many people are even aware that Ubuntu just came out with a great new version? Everyone knows about Windows Vista. Because Microsoft advertises the hell out of it. Because they're a giant frigging company and they can do that. And if a consumer is in downtown San Francisco and sees the Vista ad and thinks, "I'm sick of Microsoft, I wish there was an alternative," they'll turn around and see the Apple ad. The only people who advertise Ubuntu are sweaty nerds with home-burned CD's.

The sad truth is Linux isn't the answer to Microsoft; Apple is. If you want a Unix core with full hardware support, a complete software suite, and customer service, you want an Apple. Linux is little more than a poor man's Apple.

Of course, I don't really agree with those statements.  I'd rather run Linux than Mac OS X.  I don't like Apple's corporate mentality and I don't like Steve Jobs.  Apple aspires to be the "evil empire" just as much as Microsoft.  The only difference is Apple slaps a smiley face on it. Linux is the only real solution.  It is free and open source and that embodies some wonderful things.  It's a living community.  Software seems more resilient; if something doesn't work right, you can talk directly with the people who made it, and they'll fix it as soon as they can.  I get software updates daily, not twice a year.  The Open Source Software community is a meritocracy; people will only use software if it's good, and the best programs (like Ubuntu, OpenOffice, and Firefox) quickly rise to the top.  It is easy, safe, and doesn't cost a ridiculous amount of money, money that you'd rather be spending on something else.

But, unfortunately, my sentiments are generally shared only by the nerd community.  Normal people don't care about the mentality of a software community, they want something airbrushed, pre-packaged, and guaranteed by a name they trust.  Even having Dell sell Linux boxes isn't going to change that overnight.

Maybe next year.