Linux on New Computers - Why not?

Update 27th May 2007

There it is, finally, one major computer supplier now supplies computers with Linux pre installed. On 24th May 2007 Dell's USA website opened the doors to the public to buy three machines with Ubuntu Linux pre installed.
This is a landmark because it finally gives the consumer an option to not choose between Windows (with any hardware) and MacOS (with Apple hardware). For the first time the consumer can now choose to buy a computer that has got a competitive alternative to Windows (and MacOS for that matter).
The next hurdle on the way is going to get hardware vendors to start supporting Linux natively, this also applies with all gadget manufacturers who provide PC software; Such as GPS', Smart phones, web cams, TV-Cards, etc. Until these manufacturers start providing software, Linux will still be a 2nd hand choice to Windows.
Regardless, Dell has taken a first step and that should be cherished.
Here you go; Pick a Linux machine!

Screen shot from Dell USA's website offering Ubuntu Linux pre installed on three computers., Click here to view larger image (NaNkb)

On May 24th 2007 Dell USA released their first three computers that are running Ubuntu Linux. This is a huge step forward for the people who don't particularly want to run Windows. I wish Dell all the best with their new product line-up and hope Europe will soon have the same ability to choose a non-Windows operating system.

Update 29th March 2007
Things are progressing. Dell has now announced that they are going to start selling (selected) consumer laptops and desktop with Linux pre-installed. There has been no word about which distribution, but still. This is a huge leap forward in recoginising the fact that Linux really is a viable alternative to Windows.
"One is that a major company is confident enough to be able to offer Linux preinstalled on a desktop - that sends a signal that Linux is usable to the average user - and I think it shows that there is a growing demand for an alternative to Windows."

From the BBC news article "Dell gives the go ahead for Linux".

Why Linux?

If you're part of the 90%+ population of this earth who uses Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Windows alone, you'll probably think I'm some sort of sadistic martyr that loves to tinker with meaningless things days in and days out. But you're wrong there. I actually hate computers that don't work perfectly allright. Sure I can live with a few imperfections, but if something important doesn't work, I get frustrated. Microsoft Windows is very good at "just working", put the CD in the drive and you're off; most computers will happily run Windows without any problems. On top of that, there's drivers for any hardware you can think of, be it webcams, TV-cards, wireless adaptors anything, mostly plug-n-play. Linux on the other hand isn't as straight forward. If things don't work out of the box, it's up to yourself to fix them. I still prefer KDE/Linux over Windows. The reason is that there's no single entity that dictates to me what I should run or what I shouldn't run, or more appropriate, what I can't run or what I must run. Microsoft is notoriously evil when it comes to linking all the softwares together and I hate it. Here's a few examples that irritate me:

  • Go to Hotmail with your MSN Messenger open and try to close the MSN Messenger and you get a message saying that "some" application is still using MSN Messenger (Yup, your web browser displaying Hotmail)
  • You can't run Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) on any other platform than Windows. IIS isn't a bad webserver and if it were stand-alone I'm sure some people would want to run it on other Operating Systems.
  • Obviously most of the Microsoft products don't work on anything else than Microsoft; I'd love to run Visio and such software on Linux.

Another thing that I like about Linux is that it's much more responsive; and I can turn off most of the bells-and-whistles without any problems. At work I'm running Windows XP, and everytime I browse the file system in Windows Explorer I get so amazed about how incredibly slow it is and I get that torch searching for files. My Windows 95 machine was faster!
Being a web geek I also like the fact that I can install the exact server environment on my desktop as I've got on my live server. Sometimes you can do that on Windows too, but most of the cases you end up doing some extra work. Not under Linux.
The final thing that makes me want to use Linux over Windows is that I'm not dumbed down by the software; on the contrary, KDE/Linux applications can be customised to oblivion. Take The Kontact Suite including KMail for example - probably the best email client in the world - especially considering that it's the "default one" (compare MS Outlook!) and that it's embedded in Calendar, Notes etc. The Linux environment is also very responsive. When I type this in Notepad I still feel there's a slight delay, it feels slightly "mushy", a feeling you don't get unless you've used a similar edior under Linux which is just so much faster and more responsive.
So I want Linux, to be more specific I want Kubuntu and KDE.

Distros aimed at users, not geeks

If you like your tinkering with your computer, you'll probably run a distro (a 'distro' is a distribution; that is Linux packaged in a flavour to suit a specific ideal/goal/task/etc) like Gentoo, or even Linux from Scratch. These distros are aimed at people who want the choice, who want to ponder about what codepages to compile into the kernel for USB support. I'm not one of these persons. Back in the time, I tried Slackware, then RedHat, and then finally Debian. I ran Debian for a very long time, and then the time dawned for Kubuntu and since then I've been a Kubuntu user. I did have a slight sidestep with Gentoo, mainly because Gentoo seems to have the most complete AMD64 base, but I couldn't justify a 3 day recompile every so often. The Debian based binary packages suit me just fine. There are several distros out there that are aimed at the (stupid?) user rather than the "compiling geek". The two at the front are probably Ubuntu (Gnome desktop, Kubuntu (Same but with KDE desktop) and Linspire.

What are these distros trying to do?

These have one thing in common; they're aimed ad being installed on desktop machines or laptops (not servers) and they're focused at people who use the computer, not people who are thinkering with the computer. They come with "everything you need" pre-installed (or easy to install). Linspire has got its CNR - Click-N-Run warehouse - where you only need to click a button on a webpage, and the installation begins. Kubuntu on the other hand comes with one CD full of goodies, and an easy way to install more goodies.
All the software in its default configuration is Free (as in speech) and with a bit of tweaking you can get some less-free software too (still Free as in beer).

Pre-Packaged Linux Machines

So far, it seems like Linspire is the vendor that has tried to get its operating system onto computers the most. If you check out the Linspire site you'll see that there are several shops that offer Linspire pre-installed. For example, at the time of writing WalMart are selling a laptop for $558 with Linspire. If you follow the Amazon link you'll find three computers with Linspire installed, like this Desktop system for $348.
But this isn't enough for me, even if these computers were for sale locally to me (UK).

How it should work

I don't want to be dicated what computer to buy depending on the Operating System. I want to buy a computer, and then I want my operating system installed on that machine. When I get to plug it in, it should basically just ask me for my name and log in details. Let's make the Dell web site into an example. Most of us have been there and configured a computer. You've got dropdowns of what accessories and software you can get with your new computer. One of the dropdowns is the Operating System list. Here I would simply like to choose "Kubuntu Linux -£76". Obviously this would be cheaper than the Windows XP license that usually comes with the computer. To me that's poinless and I'd rather spend the money on some more RAM. That's all I want to do. Obviously I don't want to bother with drivers or anything like that. I just want to switch the thing on and get going.

Why doesn't it work this way?

I guess the answer to this question is mainly pure mathematics, unfortunately.

  1. There's not enough people who want Linux on their machine to warrant selling Linux pre-installed. It will take a lot of effort. Not only do you have rebuild your sales system, but you have to customise the installation, and the support, and train the staff to support the installation. Plenty of KER-CHING there, making it expensive.
  2. The Linux distributions are too fragmented at the moment so that the vendors can't support all flavours, and thus they can't satisfy all customers. What we need is fewer Linux distros, or a few that will become mainstream, such as RedHat? on the server side.
  3. Many Linux distributions haven't acutally had a "vendor mode"-installation. This has meant that the vendor would have to make special installation systems to support a computer that starts by asking your name, location and internet password.

The future?

Will this ever happen? I don't know. Fact is, that there already are vendors out there that supply Linux powered new computers. They either build the computers themselves, or perhaps they can install Linux onto your "proprietary" box. This is good, but it's far from ideal. Sadly I think that we're still a long way away from seeing "Kubuntu Linux" in the dropdown of OS on Dell's web shop. A very long way away.

Slight Disclaimer

I haven't researched this subject to the full extent that I could have, for two reasons. A) I don't have time, and the subject is actually so vast that I could cover it in depth and thus loose the focus on the whole point. B) I've tried to look at this from the normal (stupid?) user perspective; what length of trouble would they go through to use Linux. Not very much is my gut feeling.
Therefore there might be errors in this rambling; please email me with any corrections you might have. I'll be glad to correct them.