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Buying a Linux ThinkPad: IBM's mission impossible

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Does IBM ship ThinkPads with Linux preinstalled or not? In the US it certainly seems to, but the position in Europe seems a tad murkier - after hours of research The Reg's phantom buyer is still no closer to extracting price, spec, availability or even model number out of the loves at the UK branch of Shop IBM.

You'll recall that IBM has spent the past couple of years making enthusiastic noises about supporting Linux, and garnering considerable free publicity for doing so. But although ThinkPad Linux support has allegedly been on the way since early- to mid-1999, preinstalled models have only been available since early October, and if you blinked you probably missed the announcement.

Try the IBM shop in the US though and you'll find a couple of models in the ThinkPad A and T series with Caldera OpenLinux preinstalled. Linux isn't exactly in your face on the site, and the system doesn't allow you to say 'I want a Linux computer' and then get a handy list of all the IBM kit that's appropriate, but if you check the model comparison chart you'll possibly notice that over in the right hand column there's a couple of Linux units. Try finding something similar in Europe, however, and Kafka kicks in.

Shop IBM UK uses a similar comparison chart to that used by the US online store, but there's no mention of machines with Linux preinstalled; to the casual browser it would appear that you can only get ThinkPads with Win98 or Win2k in the UK. Search the UK for Linux and you most certainly don't kick up any Linux ThinkPads.

But that doesn't mean IBM UK doesn't ship ThinkPads with preinstalled Linux. Not exactly, anyway. If you dig around IBM Europe you'll find details of the European equivalents of the A and T models on sale in the US, complete with a model number. The T Series TT1L7XX, for example, is a mobile PIII 800MHz with DVD drive, 128 megs RAM and Caldera OpenLinux.

Except that model number isn't a shipping model number - it's an IBM Europe designator which is used as the basis for the actual model numbers the different IBM subsidiaries will use. Substituting UK for the XX should give you the UK model number, right? So it's TT1L7UK, while in France it would be TT1L7FR.

But hack those numbers into the relevant model number box at Shop IBM UK or Shop IBM France, and you're told that model number doesn't exist. As with Shop IBM UK, the French version doesn't list Linux machines is the product comparison table, nor does Shop IBM Germany. So as far as we can make out, even if you can theoretically buy a Linux ThinkPad from IBM Europe, you're most unlikely to try, because IBM isn't telling you you can, and if you do the spadework to get the model number for the product, you still can't buy one, because none of the sites will admit it exists.

And if you start from the IBM Europe spec page for the TT1L7UK and press buy now, that doesn't work either, because it kicks you back to the front door of Shop IBM, where you can start looking for Linux ThinkPads and not finding them again.

OK, so what if we just call them up? We phoned up IBM Direct in the UK, explained that we wanted to check price and specification for Linux ThinkPads, and asked if they could help. Not immediately, apparently. For some reason these details aren't in the Shop IBM database, which explains why the model numbers aren't recognised, but the telephone sales people don't have this information immediately to hand either. They'll get back to us with some data, they say.

So there you go - Linux ThinkPads are available in Europe, and we've even found an IBM Europe anouncement of 26th September saying they're immediately available. Maybe IBM European HQ in Paris should mention this to its country units, before Linux gets dropped because of 'lack of demand.' ®

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