Within the next few weeks we should see Dell shipping Ubuntu-equipped computers to consumers. The announcement has created a lot of excitement around the internet as it is the first time that a desktop Linux distribution will be available from a manufacturer this size. Dell has fallen on tough times as of late but still has the potential to have a profound impact on Linux users and the results of this deal will be closely watched by everyone in the industry.
There are many upsides that come along with the Dell/Ubuntu deal. These have been widely discussed, such as hardware compatibility, user support (a mixed blessing if you have to work with Dell), the ease of purchasing a custom Linux machine, and the competitive prices that Dell can offer. During an initial consideration is seems like there are no serious downsides to this, after all up to this point there have not been many places to buy a custom computer with desktop Linux pre-installed. Even so, we have very few details on how Dell with actually go about offering Ubuntu so there might be some surprises on the way. What could go wrong with Dell offering Ubuntu? While we have high hopes for it, there are always concerns.
It would be great to think that the average consumer has a lot to gain from Dell's offering Ubuntu, but sadly the impact will be limited. The bulk of consumers are not familiar with non-Windows operating systems so even though many of them would be ideal candidates for Ubuntu it simply is not an option because they do not have the time or interest to learn a new OS or find new software. Additionally many people rely on certain Windows-based pieces of software and will either be prevented from switching or they will switch and have an immediate problem when they can't get their favorite game running or use a specialized program for work. It has been reported that systems will not include Wine, dual-booting, or any virtualization software so there will be no easy answers for Windows programs.
Another issue consumers face is that of tech support. Dell could have lot of retraining in order to get their support staff ready for dealing with the problems of a second operating system and even though they won't have to worry about systems catching a virus or becoming infected with spyware, problems will inevitably come up. This is especially true once people start calling up about unsupported webcams and other peripherals. This could be a serious problem for consumers because Dell will probably allocate a proportional number of support staff to the Linux department even though the initial number of incidents-per-buyer could be higher with Linux than Windows. It should be noted that Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) does sell support services so the situation could be a lot more interesting than simply Dell doing some retraining. Canonical's profit-models is based around selling support so they will defintely they will have some role in all this and they will want to make sure that Dell's support problems do no reflect poorly on them.
As always, price is a factor. Ubuntu is available free to end users but when dealing with the quantities and circumstances that Dell works with, things get much more complex. It would seem like Ubuntu-equipped systems would be much cheaper than ones running Windows, due to licensing issues, but that has not been the case with Dell's free-OS and no-OS computers in the past. While the cost of a Windows license is somewhere in the price of a Dell, it does not come out to nearly as much as it does when purchasing an after-market version due to the sponsored inclusions of trial software.
Dell's choice to offer desktop Linux could have a big impact on the community as well. At first there will be an influx of users as well as a lot of existing users appreciating the availability of reasonably priced systems but there could be problems down the road. There are obvious concerns about security given the increased attention to Ubuntu and the additional users this will bring in, but this is not really something to worry about. More concern should be paid to the fate of smaller system builders that have been working with the community for some time now, like System76. These companies will still have enthusiast appeal, but they will have a tough time competing with Dell's prices.
Based on the number of people that buy Ubuntu systems from Dell, they could put a strain on the current infrastructure that has been set up for system updates and application downloads. These systems are scalable but depending on how active a role Dell plays in this there could be serious slowdowns when it comes time for updates.
There are always the aspects of something like this that are not predictable, especially given how few details have emerged so far. One detail that will be particularly interesting is the impact that Dell has on Ubuntu. Dell is in the practice of filling their computers with large amounts of "bloatware" and also all sorts of cobranding, but it remains to be seen what they will do with Ubuntu. It has been reported that Dell will be shipping a standard version of Ubuntu 7.04, but from what we have seen in the past there are serious incentives for Dell to preinstall applications regardless of how users feel about them. Initially this may not be a factor, but it is something companies like Dell have relied on in the past and it is an important way to offset other costs.
There is no doubt that this will be an important experiment. This is the first time that a version of desktop Linux will be installed on systems from a top tier manufacturer so everyone will be observing it very closely. Within the next few weeks we should see the first systems become available and shortly after the effects will be felt. Initially it is very likely that the buyers will predominantly be people who already use Linux but there will also be newcomers as well a people getting their friends and family onto Ubuntu. There are no predications on the number of sales but even and if a very small number of Dell's total consumer sales (an already small percent of their total sales) opt for Ubuntu, it will be a big deal for the community.
While we are excited for the possibilities there are always concerns about the future. Some background reading will prove just how complex a deal like this is though consumers will be concerned with the same basics details as always: price, performance, and features. The price will be especially interesting because Dell is equipping their budget models with Ubuntu, but the systems will probably not be much cheaper than ones equipped with Windows. It is impossible to predict exactly how this deal with affect desktop Linux users, but the fact that it was made is a great sign for the future, especially for the ever-expanding legions of Ubuntu fans.