Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/06/dell_open_pc/

How Dell repels attempts to buy its 'open source' PC

We tried. We gave up

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in System Builder, 6th October 2005 04:34 GMT

Dell this week received much praise for releasing a new version of its "open source" PC. The computer fits into Dell's n Series range of Windows-less systems. These ship with a copy of FreeDOS in the packaging material - but not installed on the PC - which is apparently a bizarre concession to Microsoft. While Dell garners glowing reviews for shipping such an open source OS-friendly product, the company's new E510n actually stands as yet another example of how hard Dell tries not to sell non-Microsoft gear.

If Dell has an official press release touting the E510n, we sure can't find it. In addition, the company doesn't present the n Series systems to customers looking for desktops on a standard shopping page. Instead, you'll have to go ahead and search for "n Series" on Dell's web site to find the gear. But even then you've only just started your journey.

Regular Joes searching for the non-Microsoft kit will end up here. At the time of writing, you'd see an orange "New" sticker around the Dimension 5150n. That PC is certainly similar to the E510n Dell described to the press, but it's not the same box. The E510n is nowhere to be found.

Then, even if you could find the E510n and wanted to buy it, Dell provides these warnings.

"In order to boot this system, you must install an operating system. A FreeDOS media kit has been provided which will allow you to boot your system once installed. Please note that many common applications will not run and/or fully function using FreeDOS, and in order to run these applications, you will need to install the appropriate operating system and/or device specific drivers.

"n Series systems sold with FreeDOS are not eligible for upgrades to Microsoft client operating systems as part of a Microsoft Volume Licensing Agreement."

Sweet.

So, at least you're saving money by not going with a Microsoft OS, right?

Er, well, not exactly.

The 5150n, for example, starts at $649 with a 3.0GHz Pentium 4 chip, FreeDOS, 256MB of memory and a 80GB hard drive. Meanwhile, a very similar system, the E510 - presumably just like the n Series box by the same name with the difference being that this one appears on the web site - sells for $679 with the exact same chip, memory and hard drive. The only distinguishing marks are the inclusion of Windows XP Media Center 2005 Edition and a $30 higher price tag.

Sweet.

Er, well, not exactly. You'll get a free 17 inch flat panel with the E510 and nothing free with the 5150n. The Windows PC is looking like the much better deal given that you can remove Windows and plunk Linux on the box anyway.

The battle continues - I want my open PC

If you're really persistent, you won't be satisfied with Dell's slow web updates and the time it takes to get new product on the site. You'll demand to see this new E510n and find yourself a helpful customer representative.

As it turns out, Dell's sales staffers have a secret web page for the product that you can't find with normal search tactics. A kind lass we'll call "M" pointed us here. On this site, Dell presents a couple different versions of the mysterious E510n. The lowest-end system starts at $774 and is exactly like the boxes above - including the free flat panel - except it has 512MB of memory. For some reason, Dell told reporters that the box starts at $849 - yet another one of the odd sales tactics surrounding this "open source" kit. [Following the publication of our story, Dell raised the price of the PC back up to $849. See the sales pages below for the original $774 price comparisons.]

On the special, hidden site, Dell cheers, "Are you looking for a desktop on which you can run Linux or other open-source operating systems? Look no further! . . . With the n Series desktop, customers have the flexibility to install an alternative operating system (such as a version of Linux), and help reduce the price of this system."

We have no idea what the "reduce the price of this system" refers too, since the comparisons seem to have Windows and non-Windows machines in the same ballpark. In fact, with 512MB of memory the regular 510n comes to $719 with Windows included. You'll notice that's less than the $774 E510n. Apparently, you have to pay for "n" power even though Dell reckons you save.

And, if you're still brave enough to buy this thing, Dell lets you know how much it really loves non-Microsoft OSes on desktops.

"Note: Dell does not support non-Dell installed operating systems."

You can compare the configurations by looking here for the 510n and here for the 510.

The only company that might rival Dell's strength and skill as a seller of goods is Wal-Mart. Dell outsells its rivals quarter after quarter. In fact, it often embarrasses them, posting a profit while the rest of the hardware world sinks below the thick red line.

Which makes the case of the E510n and systems like it so peculiar. How can a company so good at selling things make buying these computers so hard?

Certainly, this all has more to do with a web site snafu than Dell purposely trying to make buying a non-Microsoft PC difficult. Although, Dell's past Linux on the PC transgressions do raise more questions than answers. Some of you will remember that Dell was the first Tier I PC maker to offer Linux on mainstream desktops. Although after just a few months, Dell stopped selling the computers. Then CEO Michael Dell would later twirl away the notion that Microsoft had anything to do with the end of the Linux PC line.

Anyway, stay strong. You can pay more for the Linux-ready FreeDOS box if you try hard enough. For inspiration read our encounter with Dell's sales staff on the next page. ®

Bootnote

Here's a transcript of our chat session with "M."

Welcome to Dell Chat. Please wait for an available agent. You will be notified when your chat is accepted by an agent.
{Ashlee Vance 1:30:57 PM} Is it possible to buy a Dimmension desktop without an operating system?
The session has been accepted.
{M-1:31:09 PM} Welcome to Dell Sales Chat. My name is -------. I'll be your personal sales agent today. Give me a moment to review your concern.
{M-1:31:19 PM} yes, hi ashley
{M- 1:31:33 PM} would u like me to give the information
{Ashlee Vance 1:31:35 PM} Hello, -------
{Ashlee Vance 1:31:45 PM} Yes, please.
{M-1:32:09 PM} hold on while i search for that
{Ashlee Vance 1:32:28 PM} Ok, will do.
{M-1:32:52 PM} click the link: http://www1.us.dell.com/content/topics/ segtopic.aspx/
e510_nseries?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs

{M-1:33:39 PM} did u get into the link?
{Ashlee Vance 1:33:51 PM} Ah, I see. I had read about that but couldn't find it on the web site. It's rather hard to find on your own.
{M-1:34:03 PM} oh
{M-1:34:24 PM} oh btw, Will you be purchasing online today using the Dell Preferred Account?
{Ashlee Vance 1:34:34 PM} But these cost more than the ones without operating systems, don't they?
{Ashlee Vance 1:35:03 PM} The regular 510 starts at $679
{M-1:35:31 PM} these are without he operating system
{Ashlee Vance 1:36:15 PM} Right, but why do they cost more than the same PC with an operating system. Shouldn't it cost less?
{M-1:36:37 PM} hold on lemme double check
{Ashlee Vance 1:36:58 PM} Ok, thanks a ton. You guys are always so nice.
{M-1:37:18 PM} thx
{Ashlee Vance 1:37:57 PM} Do you live in Texas? I hear it is very pretty there.
{M-1:38:10 PM} yeah
{M-1:38:17 PM} somewhat
{M-1:38:57 PM} the free DOS E510 has a better configured features
{Ashlee Vance 1:39:06 PM} I'm sure the Dell offices are glorious at least what with all the money Michael Dell has.
{M-1:39:45 PM} like the memory (512 Megabytes and the sound card), yeah i agree
{Ashlee Vance 1:39:58 PM} Oh, you're right. It does have more memory.
{Ashlee Vance 1:40:03 PM} I missed that.
{M-1:40:31 PM} Will you be purchasing online today using the Dell Preferred Account?
{Ashlee Vance 1:40:37 PM} Ok, well, I need to give it a think then. I wish you could get Linux installed on these. Do you do that?
{M-1:41:41 PM} it's got to be u who will install it
{M-1:42:37 PM} how do u intend to use the system?
{Ashlee Vance 1:42:41 PM} Ah, ok. Well, I need to check with my boss. We're looking to buy quite a few of these and wanted Linux. We might have to go with HP since they install Linux. Thanks for your help! I'll be sure to compare the prices.
{M-1:43:41 PM} oic, would u like me to build a system and send the info to you via e-mail?
{Ashlee Vance 1:43:43 PM} What do you mean how do I intend to use it? For computing, silly.
{Ashlee Vance 1:44:08 PM} Sure, if you can build one with Linux. That would be great.
{M-1:45:18 PM} lol, i mean what do u plan on using the system for? oh its not possible, i can't configure it with Linux
{Ashlee Vance 1:45:47 PM} I thought Dell loved Linux. That's what the ads say
{M-1:46:53 PM} there's no option for configuring the system with Linux
Ashlee Vance 1:47:24 PM} Ah, I see. Well, I'm sure glad to be chatting to you rather than some dude in India. Those guys drive me nuts. Your english is great.
{M-1:47:39 PM} thx,
{M-1:47:50 PM} they're good as well
[Man, she's well trained]
{Ashlee Vance 1:48:11 PM} I might have to check in with old HP now. Really need that Linux box. Thanks for all your help though.
{M-1:48:22 PM} no prob
{M-1:48:53 PM} do u know the history of english in India?
{Ashlee Vance 1:49:08 PM} mmm, just a little bit. just what i see in the movies
{Ashlee Vance 1:49:21 PM} is that something you study?
{M-1:49:53 PM} oh yeah, nope something that i was interested of and study on my own
{M-1:50:11 PM} anyway, so much about that
{M-1:50:19 PM} nice chatting with u as well
{Ashlee Vance 1:50:33 PM} Heheh. Ok, well, take it easy.
{M-1:50:43 PM} yep
{M-1:50:56 PM} nice name Ashley
{Ashlee Vance 1:51:15 PM} ah, thank ya
[It's getting hot and heavy now.]
{M-1:51:22 PM} welcome
{Ashlee Vance 1:51:24 PM} M-ain't so bad either.
{M-1:51:38 PM} hehe u made me laugh there
{Ashlee Vance 1:51:40 PM} So you live in Austin then?
{M-1:52:07 PM} yeah
{Ashlee Vance 1:52:26 PM} Have you ever seen Michael Dell? He's pretty famous.
{M-1:52:51 PM} indeed
{M-1:52:55 PM} Is there anything else I can help you with regarding this matter?
{Ashlee Vance 1:53:25 PM} Nope, that'll about do it unless Dell starts shipping Linux. Please feel free to email when that happens.
{M-1:53:35 PM} sure
{Ashlee Vance 1:53:43 PM} Ok, peace out.
[Always try to be hip when dealing with online chat support staff]
{M-1:54:01 PM} same here and God bless
{M-1:54:21 PM} still there?
{Ashlee Vance 1:54:34 PM} yep, did you start shipping linux already?
[This joke seemed to throw her, and a whole three minutes passed, forcing me to ask the obvious...]
{Ashlee Vance 1:56:26 PM} is this a bot?
{M-1:57:05 PM} you're chatting with a live person
{M-1:57:15 PM} http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/ProductDetail.aspx?
TabPage=techspecs&sku=A0459052&spagenum=&
category_id=5573& brandid=&k=&c=us&l=en& cs=19&
mnf=&prst=&prEnd=&mnfsku=& orderby=&searchtype=&
pageb4search=& page=productlisting.aspx& instock=&refurbished=

{Ashlee Vance 1:57:23 PM} oh, ok, you seemed very alive. my friend said you might be a bot
{M-1:57:37 PM} of course not
{Ashlee Vance 1:58:06 PM} Oh, ok. So I can install this Linux on the PC? [Great, it's only $2,000.]
{M-1:58:13 PM} yep
{Ashlee Vance 1:58:45 PM} Sweetness. You're a fine lady, M.
{M-1:58:56 PM} thx so much
{M-1:59:20 PM} Is there anything else I can help you with regarding this matter?
{Ashlee Vance 1:59:48 PM} Nope. I'm outta here.
{M-1:59:53 PM} ok {M-1:59:58 PM} Thank you for contacting Dell Sales Chat. We appreciate your business.
{Ashlee Vance 1:59:59 PM} Keep it real. Seacrest out.
{M-2:00:34 PM} :-)