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Dell's dance with Ubuntu: True love or farce?

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Where Dell 1.0 had Red Hat, Dell 2.0 sports Ubuntu. Can you really tell the difference?

Dell 1.0 had Michael Dell brag in 2000 about being "the first major manufacturer to offer Linux across its full product line." Dell made these comments at the LinuxWorld conference, where he also promoted Dell investments in open source companies such as Eazel, Red Hat, TurboLinux, Linuxcare and CollabNet.

"Dell has prepared for wide-scale Linux adoption by investing more engineering resources to Linux than to any other operating system," Dell said, at the time. "We're doing this to make it easy for our customers to run Linux; configurations of all Dell products are now designed, tested and certified for Linux. Our factories can now customize each system - from PCs to servers - with Linux."

Less than a year later, Dell quit selling Linux on PCs and laptops to consumers.

Where Michael Dell in 2000 said "the only thing growing faster than Linux is the number of Linux systems Dell is shipping," a Dell spokeswoman in 2001 claimed that weak customer demand forced Dell to scrap its PC/notebook Linux business.

Now Dell reckons that customers again want Linux. So, it's going to ship Ubuntu on a limited number of desktops and laptops. Dell has, in fact, made such computers available with FreeDOS for a long time, as a weird concession to Microsoft. Dell didn't ship the Linux cancer, but it made it really easy for you to outfit a computer with Linux.

Apparently, you – the consumer – convinced Dell to go one step further with Ubuntu.

Dell set up a site called IdeaStorm to gather suggestions from consumers. The notion of pre-installed Linux was promoted 133,089 times on the site, making it the top suggestion. Pre-installing OpenOffice followed at 96,593, and installing Firefox followed at 72,153.

Wouldn't you know it? Michael Dell claims on a Dell website to run his laptop with Ubuntu, OpenOffice and Firefox.

You're told that this Ubuntu love is all part of Dell 2.0. The company is listening to its customers now.

One should, however, question just how authentic Dell 2.0 really is.

After all, Dell claimed that slow Linux desktop sales caused it to scrap the idea back in 2000.

Absorbing that line requires that you ignore Microsoft's rather firm notes to Dell. Microsoft told OEMs to "meet demand but not help create demand" where Linux was concerned.

You'll also recall that Dell said there was no customer demand for Opteron-based servers even though sales of Opteron chips skyrocketed, leaving Dell's server business as flat as a Midland, Texas road. Did Dell listen harder to Intel or its customers? Not the hardest question to answer.

Exactly who is Dell's master these days? Partners and margins or the customer?

This Ubuntu experiment should give us a clue. ®

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