ZDNet's reporters posed as undercover buyers to identify the policy of the top-five PC vendors in terms of supplying systems without an operating system, known as naked PCs. A naked PC gives IT professionals freedom to install the operating system of their choice.
But the ZDNet investigation showed that none of the five manufacturers would sell any PCs without Windows, our reporters found.
The reasons — or excuses — were varied.
Acer said it would give our reporter a refund of £30 for not using Windows, but would only make a refund if we drove to its Plymouth "repair" centre. In contrast to other reports, Dell refused to refund the Windows software if it went unused. Instead it offered to cancel the shipping charge of £50 as a compromise.
We backed up our undercover enquiries with official calls to every one of the five vendors. Two of the five — Acer and Toshiba — would not discuss the matter with us. Dell, HP and Lenovo claimed it was possible to buy naked PCs from their company — but our attempts to follow their guidance to buy one proved impossible.
Dell and HP both claimed it was possible to buy a naked PC from them, but we were unable to buy one from either vendor. Lenovo told us it sells PCs with pre-installed Linux, but it could not tell us how we could buy such a system.
Microsoft has placed considerable pressure on a number of PC vendors not to sell systems without Windows. Critics have suggested that vendors have yielded to such pressure because they are afraid of losing their bulk purchasing discount with Microsoft. Others have suggested that it would cost PC vendors considerably more in unit costs to produce naked PCs.
Ranjit Atwal, Gartner principal analyst, is pessimistic about the future for naked PCs. "The market for Linux is probably not big enough for them [suppliers] to go down that route," said Atwal, adding that he thought the number of users wanting to use Linux at the desktop was "in the small single digits".
"To do that [provide systems without Windows] costs them money," he argued.
Yet many customers have demanded naked PCs. A user forum set up in February by Dell has been inundated with such requests.
While customers find it difficult to get naked PCs, some of the vendors are beginning to apply more thought to loading Linux on PCs for both high-street buyers and corporates. HP is one such company. It recently began a feasibility study that tested the public's appetite for the operating system.
"We carried out a test marketing exercise and made Linux PCs available to users," explained Peter Murray, director of enterprise server and storage at HP. "It was disappointing and we had very little interest. We looked at the exercise and we think we may have got the marketing wrong so we are trying it again."
Murray believes there is a market for Linux in the UK but is also aware of the issues facing any large supplier who wants to make Linux boxes available. "It means diverting production lines and that is a lot of money and so we have to prove the business case," he said. However, he made it clear that he is enthusiastic about the idea and wants to make it work. "We just have to show it is worthwhile," he said.
Dell's position is less clear. The company has said it is keen to promote Linux and systems ready to run with Red Hat Linux are available on its site, but only in the US. While Linux is not available to UK users, Dell is currently assessing user interest on its own site and is asking for input from potential Dell/Linux users.
We have used the latest figures on PC sales from Gartner to identify the top five vendors. We detail our findings one vendor at a time over the following five pages.