Why Dell Segregates Ubuntu

LinuxInsider has noted that Dell continues to play with its Ubuntu strategy in a way that confounds Linux advocates. For those closely watching the dramatic ups and downs of Dell’s relationship with Ubuntu, it can make one feel a little seasick.

Writing for LinuxInsider, Katherine Noyes, explains:

…just days after the news broke that Dell had removed all Ubuntu-preloaded machines from its site, reports emerged that the company is actually *expanding* its desktop Ubuntu selection.

This, after Dell’s “love letter” to Linux went up — and then down — and after it crafted the daringly insightful “Windows vs. Ubuntu” comparison guide. All in the space of a few weeks!

I don’t really feel comfortable referring to this as Dell’s Linux “strategy” because it looks much more like an experiment than anything else. A strategy has focus, tactics, and a clearly defined goal. Dell seems to be doing something completely different. Regardless of what we call it, I think many Linux advocates don’t understand that Dell can’t offer Windows systems side-by-side with Ubuntu systems, and it isn’t because of Microsoft FUD or FTC G-Men. Take a look at these statements from Robert Pogson who was quoted in the LinuxInsider article:

Dell is fragmented, blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. “Their site is a mess, and they do not have a vision for GNU/Linux. I do not understand why a customer cannot dial up a machine, choose an OS and go to the checkout,” he said. “That’s what other OEMs do, but no, Dell fragments their site with different products available to different customers without rhyme or reason.”

[…]

The only motivation, as Pogson sees it, “is possibly they are trying to please M$ without offending the FTC, who might frown on exclusive dealing,” he suggested.

[…]

“Businesses used to have ‘token blacks’ or ‘token women,'” Pogson noted. “I think GNU/Linux may be Dell’s ‘token OS.’ Ubuntu definitely rides at the back of the bus on Dell’s site.”

It’s a good guess, but it’s wrong.

First of all — the annoying use of “M$” and “GNU/Linux” aside — I have no idea why Pogson thinks the FTC cares about Microsoft’s (former?) monopoly on operating systems. They didn’t care much about it in 1991 when the FTC first noticed that it might be problem. It wasn’t until years later, when Netscape started complaining about Microsoft’s monopoly — which was, by then, practically blessed by the FTC — that the FTC bothered to do anything. And they did so then only because they had to. The effect of Internet Explorer on Netscape was blatantly obvious and could not be ignored. Of course, the web browser itself was never really important. It was just a symptom of a larger disease. Microsoft wasn’t making money from IE or earning a greater market share on PCs from it. Furthermore, competing browsers were never banned from Windows. The prosecution’s primary complaint was that it was too difficult to install competing browsers because Windows itself was hard to use, not that competing web browsers couldn’t be installed. Microsoft was actually correct in pointing out that IE was a “feature” of Windows, not a separate product. The lawyers within the Department of Justice failed to acknowledge — or, more likely, were afraid to acknowledge — that the real threat to competition was the operating system itself.

Keep in mind that Judge Jackson’s solution to Microsoft’s monopoly was to split Microsoft into two entities: one to build Windows while the other built software products, like web browsers, that ran on Windows. Although this might have negated both Netscape’s and FTC’s complaints, it would not have solved the real problem. The more obvious solution — the one few people talked about, especially within the DoJ — was to split Microsoft into multiple entities, each building operating systems, Ă  la the breakup of Ma Bell. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The antitrust case was thrown out and Microsoft recieved a gentle, maybe even loving, slap on the wrist. Fortunately, despite the help of the United States government, Microsoft has been actively eroding its monopoly ever since.

So why would Dell care about a token OS? It isn’t like Sony or HP or Lenovo are offering a variety of operating systems. As far as I know, no PC vendor has ever been confronted by the FTC for concerns related to operating systems. This is largely because much of the world still doesn’t know how to deal with software. Some nations have laws that treat an operating system like hardware, others treat it like ethereal intellectual property, some do both (United States), while others try not to think of it at all (China). Because no one can agree on what software really is, allegations of monopoly are doomed to fail. That’s why the focus was always on Windows and Internet Explorer rather than just Windows itself. By redirecting the argument to Internet Explorer, a number of simple solutions were made clear, stockholders were largely unharmed, and Microsoft was only required to fess up to the lesser of many more devious evils. But questioning Windows itself would have required an actual definition of software, a complete rewrite of patent law, and would have done severe damage to a multibillion dollar corporation and its stockholders. No, it was much easier to pretend that IE was the problem.

The real reason Dell segregates Ubuntu is obvious: Linux is unpredictable. Think for a moment about Dell’s hardware channel. Their hardware comes in from a variety of vendors, many of whom are partners with Microsoft, each designing products almost exclusively for Windows. It’s a giant commodified assembly line, typified by cheap parts, cheap drivers, and minimal testing. Dell uses economy of scale to make a (small) profit. It’s pretty easy to slap Windows onto these machines, fill with them junkware, and then ship them out to customers as quickly as possible.

Now imagine adding Linux to this channel. There is no guarantee that what is coming from the hardware vendors is going to work with Linux. While it is quite possible that this hardware can be made to work, it becomes Dell’s sole responsibility to do so. The vendor no longer bears any responsibility. This raises Dell’s costs for each hardware component they have to “certify” with Ubuntu. There is no central company or organization — not even Canonical — who can accurately predict what hardware will work from release to release. Dell must essentially find the subset of hardware that works with the least amount of work and create a parallel assembly line for just those components. Furthermore, none of Dell’s stock junkware or marketing ploys can be used on these machines. Customers are largely ignorant of operating systems — and they have a right to be if they so choose — and Dell doesn’t want its customers, who are already very price conscious, accidentally choosing an Ubuntu system just because it’s cheaper. If Dell actually lowered the cost of Ubuntu systems to reflect the difference of the Windows license, it might increase sales, but it won’t necessarily increase customer satisfaction or retention.

Meanwhile, it is in Dell’s best interest to promote alternate operating systems because they are stuck in a tooth-and-nail battle with dozens of other commodity PC vendors. Anything Dell can do to differentiate their brand or build a loyal customer base is going to be a welcome idea. We also mustn’t forget that Apple has taught the electronics industry that, to catch the ball, you have to be where it is going to be one second ahead of time. My guess is that, after years of dwindling profit margins and bullying from Microsoft, Dell is simply trying to keep an open mind about future markets. It is possible that Ubuntu might become a mass market alternative to Windows in the future.

I do not agree with the many Linux aficionados who celebrate Dell’s Ubuntu offerings. I think Dell’s move may actually be detrimental to Linux in general. I would much rather Linux be associated with high quality machines built by caring people, targeted at customers who really want them and are willing to pay for them, such as the machines offered by system76 or ZaReason. Dell has no direct market with its Linux PCs and it will likely not be very profitable for anyone involved, including Dell and Canonical. Frankly, I think that, to succeed, Canonical needs to set up partnerships with smaller companies like system76 to offer Ubuntu on high quality machines with limited hardware sets. The Linux sales model should not mimic Microsoft’s. In fact, for wide adoption, Canonical’s strategy needs to be friendly with proprietary hardware and software vendors and much more vertical, much like Apple’s strategy with the Mac.

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