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Checkout the OS-free PCs at walmart.com

Pirates' charter?

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We are indebted to CNET for the news that walmart.com is to experiment with selling PCs without operating systems i.e. a whole lot cheaper than their Windows-loaded counterparts.

The arch-discounter is offering nine (own-brand?)Microtel PCs for sale online, with prices - sans monitor, as well as OS - ranging from a bargain basement $399 for 1GHz Duron and Celeron models, all the way up to $868.74 for a 2GHz P4 replete with 256MB of SDRAM.

The idea of the Windows-free promo is to attract tech- savvy custom at a time when consumer PC sales are flatter than a flat pancake. The idea is that buyers can install their own operating system - maybe open source, maybe a license from an dead PC (but make sure you have all the documentation, folks).

The risk is that Wal-Mart's mass-market demographic will buy OS-naked PCs only to discover to their chagrin that they have to shell out buckaroos for WindowsXP - at retail prices. This what Steve Baker, a analyst quoted by CNET reckons, anyhow. Also, he thinks that tech-savvy customers shun walmart.com in favour of more geek-friendly online retailers.

Wal-Mart is now officially the world's biggest company by revenues, overtaking Exxon for the first time in 2001. Geeks shop there, surely, along with the rest of America, a substantial swathe of the UK, and a hefty (but unprofitable) slice of Germany.

In our opinion, tech-savvy does not = overclocking, self-building power user, necessarily, certainly not on every occasion. There's the children, the inlaws, the neighbours who ask Mr. Tech Savvy what PC can they buy for $600 or less, and could he(it's probably a he) help them get it started?

And geeks who want cheap new machines, not necessarily for themselves, will find their way to walmart.com, maybe through price comparison engines, maybe through word of mouth, maybe through in-store flyers, maybe through the link above.

And when they get their OS-naked PCs what will they do next? Our guess is that the majority will load them up with pirate versions of Windows, as opposed to Linux distros.

Selling PCs without their operating systems, particularly at the retail level, is a great no-no, so far as Microsoft is concerned. It knows that it has probably lost the sale forever - certainly for the life of that escaped PC.

MS can easily keep its major PC vendors in line, and it can by carrot and stick, keep the vast majority of smaller system builders from straying too far from the pre-loaded OEM OS fold.

WalMart is a different matter: Microsoft will have to be really, really nice if it is to persuade the shopping monster to change its mind, should this OS-free PC zone prove successful. ®

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