Which Major PC Vendor Will Sell Desktop Linux First?

by Doc Searls

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Freedom seeks its own level.

The old year closed, as it so often does, with economic prognostications. Will next year be better or worse? Will stocks stay in the tank? Will the real estate bubble burst? Will consumer confidence rise?

When it came to Linux, of course, there was the perennial LOTD—Linux on the Desktop—question, for which the answer is the equally perennial “maybe”.

Me, I'm mostly wondering what happens when business finishes waking up to the abundance of highly useful free stuff in the world. There are signs it's happening.

For example, here's Christopher Koch, in CIO Magazine:

A for-profit software company cannot compete with the economics of open source—free is as cheap as it gets. Nor, it turns out, can it compete with open source's quality testing process. Though the pace of open-source development can be languid and tends to create products less functionally rich than their proprietary counterparts, the stuff gets tested so often and so brutally by so many different people that most open-source programs are judged to be more stable and reliable. In a commodity market, low cost and reliability count more than bells and whistles.

That's where we connect the dots between Linux' domination of the server business (a milestone the Butler Group expects to pass, languidly, in 2009) and the same eventuality with desktops.

PCs can't be commodities if they're not running commodity OSes. Nearly all of them aren't, and that's THE problem with the PC marketplace right now. Commodity customers aren't seeing commodity alternatives to Windows. Not in stores, anyway. Not yet.

But with the price of PC hardware melting toward nothing, the (growing!) cost of Windows is becoming an increasingly exposed and unsustainable irony. At some point low cost and reliability will win the market. That's when LOTD breaks through the dam.

That dam consists almost entirely of the big international PC hardware companies' collective unwillingness to market Linux desktops and laptops in a serious way.

But, again, there are signs.

The Bigs won't risk making their first move right under Microsoft's nose here in the U.S. Instead they'll answer demand in those parts of the world where technology is no less important, but there's far less money to go around.

Like India, for example.

On Wednesday, India's Financial Express reported that Hewlett-Packard is coming out with a Compaq Presario home PC—with monitor, speakers and the rest of the usual works—for 30,990 rupees, or about $645. It features a 1.5 GHz AMD Athlon cpu, and Red Hat Linux. The Intel-based Windows XP alternative is 40,000 rupees, or about $833. Local “assemblers” are putting together other bundles for as little as 24,000 rupees, or about $500. <http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=24958>

This comes at a time when Hewlett-Packard is running thick multi-page ads in magazines describing how HP and Linux have done wonders for the likes of Dreamworks and Amazon on the server side—while also running ads for the Compaq Tablet PC that chant “HP recommends Microsoft Windows XP Professional for Mobile Computing” on every page. Co-op advertising money will buy impressions, but it won't make bells and whistles outsell low cost and reliability—especially for customers that desperately crave the latter. At some point those sales go over a line, and the dam bursts.

So... When will it happen here in the U.S.? Is 2003 the year we see big-name hardware companies selling Linux as aggressively as they sell Windows—by which I mean Linux PCs show up in stores and on the front pages of Web sites?

Paul Saffo famously said we overestimate in the short term and underestimate in the long. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say the long term is mostly behind us. (How many years have we been waiting for LOTD to take off?) Somebody is going to break the ice this year. My own instinct says it'll be IBM, mostly because there must be serious demand for LOTD (as well as improvised solutions with it) inside the company. You can't have that many engineers walking around with Linuxified ThinkPads and not get around to selling them at some point.

I'm betting Dell will be next. Then Gateway. Then HP. Yes, I'm basing this on admittedly scant evidence, but you can help in that department. Feel free to feed me some real facts if you have them. (I'm doc@ssc.com)

As for other predictions, here are a few that come quickly to mind:

  • Members of Unbreakable Linux will continue not using that expression to describe what they do with the OS.

  • Members of United Linux will be united in not using the adjectival first name when casually describing their Linux offerings.

  • Approximately 100% of positive publicity statistics about Microsoft advantages over Linux will be the result of research bought by Microsoft.

  • Red Hat will jump to the front of the LOTD bandwagon, once it starts rolling.

  • Embedded Linux will be driven in a huge way by Sony and Matshushita, which recently announced the intent to co-develop a standard form of embedded Linux for consumer electronics (think of it as an XBox payback)

In other words, this is the year to bet on the tortoise that looks like a penguin.

But enough of my predictions. What about yours? Send them along. If they make good sense, I'll share them with the rest of us here.

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