EOF - Dear Laptop Vendor

by Lincoln D. Durey

I'm a collector, but I have one collection I alternately love and hate. I have several thousand “Designed for Microsoft Windows” stickers. I love them because each one marks a laptop that's been freed from the Microsoft matrix. I hate them because they remind me that any laptop you'd actually want to own for three to four years is born into slavery by its maker.

EmperorLinux has been installing, configuring, testing and supporting Linux on brand-name laptops and notebooks since 1999. This is not easy work. Getting Linux running well, with full support for all the hardware on a freshly minted laptop, presents many significant technical hurdles. Any Linux laptop worth its salt requires quite a raft of distribution-specific and system hardware-specific configuration file modifications, many of which are beyond current Linux automated configuration tools. Of course, no modern laptop will have full hardware support without a very heavily patched kernel. Customers—rightfully so—want solid support for IEEE-1394 FireWire, ACPI (with suspend), Wi-Fi (both b and g), external VGA and everything Windows users get from a laptop. No stock Linux distribution kernel can do this, and the Linux vendors all disclaim laptop support. Hardware vendors IBM and Dell even have dipped their toes into the Linux laptop pool occasionally and pulled out for reasons of support (lots) and demand (small).

Consumers should know that no name-brand vendor will sell them a laptop without a preloaded operating system. They can be certain that the OS will be supplied by a much-maligned monopoly. The problem, of course, is in the nature of the Faustian bargain into which all major hardware vendors have entered in order to get where they are today. Every time the big vendors send their representatives to us, they ask what they can do for us. I tell them their hardware design is excellent and that my customers appreciate the long-term hardware warranties. I ask only one thing they don't provide, and I am vexed by the unchanging answer. Even a big vendor's authorized reseller or strategic partner cannot get this mythical “bare” laptop.

Our customers know, I know and the big vendors probably know these things hold true: 1) laptops are a small percentage of the total personal computing market; 2) Linux, though big on the server, is a small part of the desktop OS market; 3) “Linux” doesn't mean one thing, there are at least six viable, popular Linux distributions, each having two to three versions in common usage; and 4) taken together, those imply that there can't possibly be a decent market.

We know that big business is about profit, and that is fine. Even though I'm a PhD geek who likes laptops, at the end of the day, I've got a whole mess of hungry little Georgia Tech graduates to feed. We know that neither the stability of Linux nor its high ideals really factor in your decision. If your projections don't yield the right ROI numbers, the product idea behind those projections won't get off the drawing board.

There is a way out of this, which just happens to be a win-win situation for everyone. Sell “bare” laptops. These must be exactly the same systems you purvey with Windows, only with bare disks (simply add a “b” to the end of your model stock codes). Clearly mark these units as having full hardware warranties but absolutely no software support for any OS (the Linux users aren't going to call you anyway). These systems need not be massively cheaper than your Windows offerings either. In fact, we all know the “Microsoft Tax” is really only a moral affront and that the dollar cost is well under $100. Don't try to push a lower-end system on us; we want the full-feature selection and per-specification configurability you otherwise would offer. Plenty of Linux users are out there who want a $3,000 laptop.

Do all this, and here is what you will get: 1) a massive flow of Linux user goodwill—the moral aspect really is important to us; 2) your foot quickly in the door of a very rapidly growing market; 3) the ability to sidestep the whole “Which Linux distribution?” question, and its support issues, by disguising it as “End-User Choice”; and 4) all your high-margin laptop hardware profit up front, with zero software support costs later. In short, you will get a new business line with a very short time-to-market, high ROI and low risk.

Let's be frank, Mr Big Vendor, you are in the hardware business and have no resources nor desire to get into the OS software support business with individual customers. That is what my company does. Please take our money and laugh all the way to the bank. We'll do all the hard work.

Lincoln Durey is founder and president of EmperorLinux (www.EmperorLinux.com). He was introduced to Linux in 1994 while working on his PhD in Electrical Engineering. He has been putting Linux on laptops since 1999.

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