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Michael Dell coy on Linux Desktop putsch

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Michael Dell is no fool, which makes his remarks in an interview with InfoWorld published this week a puzzling read.

Dell is asked about one of the great mysteries of our time: why the No.1 PC company made strategic investments in Linux on the consumer desktop, only to axe them rather dramatically, after only a few weeks.

All credit to Ashlee Vance for doggedly pursuing this mystery. Vance it was who discovered that Dell had, contrary to its public statements, disappeared the Linux option from its range of offerings.

At the time, Dell insisted that "our customers did not seem to want it though; the numbers didn't add up." But confusingly, Michael Dell still insists that the company does offer the option:-

"We continue to offer Linux on the desktop and there is nothing else to say," he tells Vance.

Back in December 2000, Dell announced a Linux desktop strategy involving GNOME and Eazel. It agreed a distribution deal for Eazel's Nautilus and backed the company with equity from its Dell Ventures investment arm.

Dell announced 5,000 redundancies "mostly in administrative, marketing and product support", the wires reported early in 2001. But that wave of redundancies eliminated the company's Linux business unit: removing its head, and reallocating the remaining staff to other functions, we know now from the dissenting States' hearings. Shortly after that, Eazel declared bankruptcy.

In other words, Dell's desktop Linux initiative was killed almost as soon as it had started.

"The beauty that we do"
For Dell's new found affection for Linux had not gone unnoticed at Redmond. In the spring of 2000, Microsoft's chief klaxon Ballmer rang the alarm about Dell's dalliance, saying that it was "untenable that a Windows Premier Partner would be promoting Linux." Later that summer, Microsoft's OEM enforcer Joachin Kempin had promised Ballmer he would be "hitting the OEMs harder than in the past with anti-Linux ... they should do a delicate dance."

The details were strangely under-reported and remain so. By last spring, the endless appeals had bored most editors to distraction, and in contrast to the opening days of the Jackson case when the courtroom was packed with star reporters and book authors, few reporters were asked to cover the States' appeals. Which is a shame, as tantalizingly, it's here - in the depositions last Spring - that the answers to this puzzle may lie.

Alas, many pages of Ballmer deposition which broach on the subject of OEMs selling competing products to Windows, have been redacted.

On February 8 last year, after a long preamble about marketing and development funds that Microsoft gives to OEMs, Ballmer was asked if he dealt personally with OEMs.

"I try to convince them of the beauty that we do," replied Saintly Steve.

The States' Attorney then turned to the Dell relationship. Twenty two pages of blank testimony follow. After a break to change the tape, we get ten more blank pages - and the discussion continues about Linux, and how much leeway OEMs have in their agreements with Redmond.

Microsoft persuaded the court that the details of specific OEM agreements were commercially sensitive, and could be discussed but not released to the public. The truth is in there.

Meanwhile, America's 11th richest man (not No.1 of course) maintains that his company does sell consumer desktop Linux systems. Only if you look on the Dell store, it's extremely hard to find.

Asked about the antitrust testimony by InfoWorld, Michael Dell weighs the complex legal and economic intricacies of his historic relationship with Microsoft, before offering this response:-

"Whoo!" (Twirls finger).

What can that mean? ®

Related Links

InfoWorld's Dell interview - a must-read
"The beauty of what we do" - Ballmer testimony

Related Stories

Microsoft 'killed Dell Linux' - States
Dell ends great Linux desktop adventure

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