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Dell fumbles open source desktop gambit

Guileless to the last

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Welcome to the whirling hall of rotating knives.

Intel assembler (and bug-finder par excellence) Dell Computer was fingered in speculation yesterday that it is poised to invest in open source desktop outfit Eazel and anoint GNOME as its preferred Linux desktop.

Yerssss, indeed... But this carefully leaked, desperately optimistic newscrumb did its business duty. We confidently predict that the more gullible wires will be awash with 'Dell endorsing Linux stories', pegged on the double hook of: Dell straying from its role as Wintel distie; and Linux getting get a massive leg-up into the living rooms of Mid-West America.

But let's take a quick reality check, first. Many of you will be thinking: "You mean Dell Computer actually has a Linux desktop?" and. quite rightly, concluding that this isn't the case at all.

We've been watching Dell for more years than we'll admit, and by industry standards it's a very smart, pretty honest company. It's been sharp enough to realize that low-end commodity servers - what Intel calls "edge servers" - naturally belong to a cheap commodity OS. And in the past twelve months has produced very competitive 1u and 2u Linux racks.

What's going on?
Call us cynical, but the choice of GnomeE/Nautilus is what you'd expect if you dragged a trainee PR intern off the street, and threatened to hit them with a rock until they came up with two leading open source names. This really is strategy dictated by short-haul in-flight magazines. Err... Gnome! And err... the one that old Mac guy does...!

Gnome, much as we love it, is trailing the dominant Linux desktop KDE by several months, and several distros of mindshare. And Nautilus has failed to grok that Mozilla is rapidly becoming the scriptable desktop environment most of us want to live in.

So would any of you say that this combination is optimally tuned to computer neophytes who simply want to get their weird new computas working (and find MP3s and pornography), just yet? We don't think so, and Linux creator Linus Torvalds doesn't think so either.

But Dell has a deep public perception problem here - no one believes anything it says about Linux. It's almost painful. For several years it declined non-Microsoft operating systems and it continues to refuse to ship non-Intel CPUs at the heart of its PCs. Which is exactly its right and clearly has done little harm to the company, or the public perception of its founder.

Michael Dell is liked, perhaps even almost slightly lovable, precisely because he's honest and guileless enough to soak up the punishment that comes with this strategy.

Take any Dell keynote: "I was whupped hard as a chile, and whuppin' now don't do me any harm" is the subtext. Dell's Linux investments have been anything but strategic, and largely PR driven. We saw the guy at the last LinuxWorld beating off a succession of questions from the floor, and his sincere, well-intentioned projections were flattened by the reality of the company's business model, which is roughly: "we put stuff together; we sell stuff; please stop confusing me with all this weird crap".

Some might still hope that this is a tactical firework across the bow of Wintel. Dream on, folks. ®

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