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Reg readers take the Dell 'Open-source PC' challenge

Freedom is just another word for nothing to buy

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Once upon a time, Michael Dell heard about this thing called Linux. The open-source operating system promised to sweep across PCs all over the world. Ever the low-cost, high-volume guy, Mikey figured he could sell a heck of lot of systems with Linux, and set to work pumping companies such as Red Hat and Eazel with money from Dell's Venture Fund, and even declared that Dell would be the very first major OEM to ship PCs with Linux already installed.

In Redmond, Mikey Dell's plan didn't go over so well. Of all Microsoft's OEMs, Dell was the most favored - because it sold the most boxes. The word came down from the top. Dell would need to put on a tutu and twirl its way back to the all-Windows camp.

"I'm thinking of hitting the OEMs harder than in the past with anti-Linux. ... they should do a delicate dance," Microsoft's OEM enforcer announced.

These days, even without a real Linux on the PC business, Dell still dances more delicately than a ceramic music box ballerina twirling under a Skycar.

Dell wants you to know about something called "Open-Source PCs," which ship with a copy of the widely popular FreeDOS operating system in the packaging material but not installed on the PCs. In theory, this provides an easy path for customers to install any OS they like on the systems.

But this whole public relations exercise in openness began to unravel when we discovered the Windows-less PCs cost more than similar Windows-equipped PCs, and when it's near impossible to purchase an "Open-Source PC," in the first place.

Find the secret doorway, and hover

Dell actually has a menu option that leads you to the "Open-Source PCs" - from the "Home & Home Office" front page. But you must hover your mouse over the "Desktops" tab in the upper-left corner. If you hover long enough, this menu will appear and "Open-Source Desktops" will be near the bottom of the list. With any luck, this is exactly the path you'll use to find the systems. Otherwise, you're in for quite the journey.

Miraculously, since our earlier story popped up, Dell has managed to have its new E510n system actually appear on the "Open-source" n Series desktops section of its site. In addition, Dell yesterday took the time to hike the price of the PC to $824 - closer to the price it had been quoting to reporters earlier in the week - which is well above the $774 a Dell sales staffer found for us, as we had discovered. Dell also removed the flat panel display as a free option.

On its web site, Dell plays with prices a lot. And as Thursday passed, it lowered the price of the E510n to $724 with a "$100 Off Instantly!" rebate. With such a discount, it must be cheaper than the Windows-packed version of the same PC? Yes, finally it is. You'll have to pay $754 for a standard E510 with the same components and Windows XP.

Only a cynic would even suggest that Dell alters its system pricing based on media reports, right? Dell did, however, originally tell reporters that the E510n would cost $849. Then, after it saw our story, Dell lowered the price of the box below the regular E510. But just barely and only with a special discount.

We've noticed that Dell will change its web site and even nudge partner's web sites to fix embarrassing episodes uncovered by the press. But altering a computer's price? Surely not!

[Yep, you guessed it. A few hours after this story appeared, Dell slashed the price on the standard E510 to $704. And the "Open-source" PC? It's still $724.]

I'm sold. Let me at that "Open-Source PC"

So, say you've managed to find the E510n. And say Dell's lack of support for the box doesn't bother you. And say that paying the same for it as a box with Windows - that you could remove and give to your mom - doesn't faze you either. Then you can go ahead and buy one of these suckers, right? Well, sure, unless you're one of the many people who can't.

Reader Nicholas Owens, for example, initiated a chat session with a Dell sales staffer and said he was specifically looking for the new E510n.

Dell asks, "Hi Nicholas, Are you looking for a desktop E510?" - "no, i'm looking for the E510n, the machine that you're offering without an operating system on it.

Dell responds - "Nicholas, Can you give me just a second to find it?"

{Nicholas Owens 8:29:46 AM} sure. But Dell concludes, - "Nicholas, we are not offering the nos systems at this time."

Lovely.

Then there are those Dell customers who have heard that the company will ignore this FreeDOS business if you buy "volume quantities" of PCs and go ahead and install Linux for you. So, reader Joe Estock went to work, trying to buy 150 PCs from Dell with Debian installed.

"Will there be a possibility of them installing Linux for me?," Joe asks. "No," Dell responds. "Ok, then I think my best bet is to either go with HP or IBM," says our man Joe. "I still however suggest you to contact our sales.. department for further updates," pleads the Dell rep.

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