At the end of May, the No. 2 PC maker will begin selling some consumer-focused laptop and desktop models with Ubuntu's new "Feisty Fawn" version of Linux installed, Dell spokesman Kent Cook said. The company announced the Linux move on Tuesday on its IdeaStorm site, launched in February to gather feedback directly from customers about what they want.
"Today, we are excited to tell you that Dell will begin offering Canonical's latest version, Ubuntu 7.04, as an option on select Dell consumer models in the U.S. in the coming weeks," the company said in its announcement.
Dell also announced that it has improved its Linux forum and has given it prominent placement on its Dell Forums Web page.
When buying the Dell systems, customers will have the option to purchase support from Ubuntu backer Canonical, said Jane Silber, the start-up's director of operations.
Companies have been trying for years to make a go of Linux on PCs--Dell even invested in one company, Eazel--but generally, they've had little success, even though they offered lower prices, polished graphical interfaces and necessary software such as Microsoft Office competitor OpenOffice.org.
"I don't think this is going to be a knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park home run," said IDC analyst Al Gillen, who still doesn't see a major Linux draw for most Windows PC users. But the move is notable for the fact that it's Dell making it: "Dell typically doesn't do stuff if they don't think they're going to get enough volume to justify it," Gillen said.
Dell, suffering market share losses to top PC seller Hewlett-Packard, is trying reinvigorate its direct ties with customers, an approach that long has been the company's hallmark. Linux-based PCs was an "overwhelming" request from the IdeaStorm site, Cook said.
"We heard loud and clear from customers that they wanted this," Cook said. And of those who wanted Linux, "80 percent came back and said Ubuntu," Cook said.
Cook wouldn't share pricing details or say how Linux PCs would compare in price with Windows PCs.
Dell began selling Linux PCs in 1999 and added laptops in 2000. But in 2001, Dell reversed course, canceling the Linux PCs because of insufficient demand. Today, Dell certifies Red Hat or Suse Linux for use on some business-oriented PCs, but except when larger customers place custom orders, customers must install the operating system themselves.
This time, things are different, Cook said.
"We think great strides have been made since 2001," Cook said. "Linux has evolved to a point where there is something available for consumers," though Linux PCs will appeal mostly to a Linux enthusiast market that's more limited than that for Windows Vista.
And Dell validated the Linux request through its own research. "There definitely are those who are Linux zealots, but we did some checking as well," he said.
Dell's move isn't likely to dethrone Microsoft any time soon. On servers, the Redmond, Wash.-based company faces several strong operating-system competitors in Linux and Unix, but its dominance in PC sales hasn't been dented.
Of the 160.5 million operating-system licenses shipped in 2006, Windows accounted for 92 percent, compared with 4.1 percent for Mac OS X and 3.8 percent for Linux, Gillen said. "We're not seeing any breakout momentum for Linux on desktop," he said.
A big boost for Linux
But Canonical believes the time is right.
"The market is ready," Silber said. "We think the combination of the timing, the technology and the partner are aligned to make it happen."
Dell's partnership is a significant endorsement for the up-and-coming Linux support seller. Canonical doesn't yet have the widespread hardware and software partnerships possessed by incumbent Linux power Red Hat and Novell's Suse Linux, but it's working to build them.
The company is starting its business by trying to appeal to users of desktop computers. From there, Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth has said, the company plans to head to the server market, where the real Linux bread and butter can be found.
Cook wouldn't comment on whether Dell plans to offer Ubuntu on its servers as well. "We're looking at Linux across the breadth of our product line. It takes a bit longer sometimes on that side. Stay tuned," he said.
Raven Zachary, an analyst for the market analyst firm The 451 Group, believes that day will arrive.
"I think you will find Dell, over time, also offering Ubuntu across its server product line as Ubuntu grows in popularity in the data center, due in large part to Canonical's 24-7 support offering and the simplicity of managing one distribution from the developer's desktop to the data center," Zachary said.
Customers are reporting use of Ubuntu more than IDC had expected, Gillen said.
"It's showing up as well as any traditional nonpaid Linux distribution is showing up and starting to rival some paid distributions," according to Gillen. "It's not first-tier, but it's pushing the envelope getting into the first tier."
Canonical wouldn't reveal financial terms of the deal.
"It's a very significant deal for us, in terms of evolution of the company," Silber said. "How big a deal depends, to a large extent, on how many machines are sold. We think that'll be a high number."