Linux Laptops from Dell

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Event Summary

2/1/2000 [Cnet News] - Dell now has begun selling two models of its laptops with Linux preinstalled.

The products, the Latitude CPX and the Inspiron 7500, come with Red Hat Linux 6.1 and are certified by Linuxcare. The Inspirons with Linux are available now, but the Latitudes will be available Feb. 4, according to a company representative. The move has been expected since last August.

The CPX is the top-of-the-line model of Dell's Latitude line, slimmer and more expensive than the Inspirons, which are designed to be more like replacements for desktop computers. The price for the Linux models is the same as for the Windows 98 models, the representative said.

Dell has been selling servers, workstations, and business desktops with Linux preinstalled. All major hardware companies offer servers guaranteed to work with Linux, a clone of the network-friendly Unix operating system, but comparatively few have been offering Linux for laptops. One hurdle: Laptops often come with proprietary hardware that are more difficult for Linux programmers to support, though informal sites such as Linux on Laptops offer extensive help.

IBM also has made sure Linux works with a model of its ThinkPad laptops, but there were issues with the Windows-only modem and other hardware features. Dell got around the modem problem by using a PC Card modem, the Dell representative said.

Market Impact

Although IBM was first to announce Linux compatibility for its laptops, Dell is the first major vendor to make one available with Linux factory-installed. Despite Dell's representative's claims, a comparably equipped Latitude CPx costs approximately $200 more for a Linux model than for a Windows 98 model ($3387 vs $3188). We expect/hope this is due to start-up, and not because Dell plans to jack up the cost because it has a "captive audience".

In a bigger sense, this is an important step. Dell's decision to provide a Linux laptop legitimizes the concept. Michael Dell et al. do not generally provide products unless they think they can make money from them. We expect Compaq and HP will also follow suit within three to six months. We also expect Dell to continue forming strategic Linux alliances, though not with more than three or four companies.

What this also reinforces is that Dell's success/future is much more tied to Intel than to Microsoft. Intel has generated ill will with its recent chip supply problems, and Dell would be justified in cultivating a backup CPU source (a/k/a Advanced Micro Devices). However, Michael Dell has made it quite clear that he has no plans to change from Intel. This is in contrast to Dell's willingness to load Linux (i.e., the "anti-Windows") wherever it thinks it reasonable. We realize the situations are not exactly the same, but the parallels for the two dominant players in their respective fields cannot be ignored.

User Recommendations

In our attempt to sound like a broken record (forgive the archaic phrasing): users who have no interest in Linux should ignore this announcement. Except for robustness and reliability, there is nothing Linux can offer in a notebook that Windows NT can't, after a few Service Packs.

And, per usual, users considering a switch to Linux should investigate. There is a big difference between Linux on laptops and Linux on a server: if the server GUI is clunky, no one really cares (not really, but you get the idea). On a notebook, a clumsy interface means some level of pain every time a user tries to do any work. Ergonomics is very important for laptops - an experience which detracts (or distracts) from getting one's work done makes the product a loser. Therefore, potential customers should "try before buy", if they can get that kind of deal from Dell.

In addition, as always, Linux desktop apps have only limited availability at present. Dell might consider (after confirming it works as well as hyped) using Corel's version of Linux, which Corel claims will allow Windows applications to run on Linux.

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