Has Dell Delivered on GNU/Linux?

by Glyn Moody

Almost exactly one year ago, I made the following suggestion in the wake of Dell's long-awaited decision to offer ready-configured GNU/Linux systems alongside the usual panoply of Windows systems:

we must vote with our wallets. Assuming the Dell GNU/Linux systems are not hopelessly flawed in some way, we must all try to buy as many of them as we can (within reason, of course).

What follows is a short report on my own experiences of putting my money where my mouth is.

The first thing that struck me when buying a couple of systems – a desktop and laptop – was that after you've entered the Dell.co.uk site (the one I used), finding the GNU/Linux systems is not exactly easy. If you look hard, there is an option on the desktops page in the selection box for “Open-Source (Ubuntu) Desktops”, and something similar for laptops. However, the words “GNU” or “Linux” are nowhere to be found on the page (although “Linux” does appear in a drop-down menu at the top), so unless you know already that this wacky-sounding Ubuntu is indeed GNU/Linux, you may well be put off.

The equivalent pages for Dell.com are even worse: there is no option to select “Open-Source (Ubuntu) Laptops”; instead, “Open Source PCs” are placed literally as the last option on the page, after “Windows Vista” and “Still looking for Windows XP?” By contrast, the very first thing that you meet on practically every page is “Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium.”

Clearly, then, Dell is still very timorous about this weirdo GNU/Linux stuff, and remains in thrall to its masters in Redmond. That, at least, is the current state: I would hope that as more Ubuntu systems are sold, and as GNU/Linux becomes more widely used, so Dell will take a chance and start to treat open source on an equal footing with Windows.

Moving on to the systems themselves, the choice when I bought my desktop and laptop were rather limited, both in terms of models and options on those models. To be fair, I wouldn't expect Dell to offer its entire range immediately, so I wasn't unduly put off by this. The rest of the process – choosing options, paying etc. - proceeded without a hitch.

One area where I was deeply impressed with Dell was the speed with which it built and despatched my systems: the desktop arrived within a week, and the laptop was built the same night I ordered it – Dell's tracking system is extremely well done – and delivered immediately after the supervening weekend. This seems to me to be an extremely good sign, because it suggests that GNU/Linux systems are not being built in some shed at the back of the factory by part-time workers, but are fully integrated into the main Dell assembly line.

As to the machines themselves, they came with a basic Ubuntu 7.10 installation that did everything it should have done. A naïve user would have no difficulty running and using programs, with one important exception. Setting up networking requires a fairly good understanding of basic TCP/IP technology, and would have defeated most average users. Perhaps there is scope for someone to put together a short, easy-to-follow explanation on how to do this that would be supplied with all Dell Ubuntu systems. Of course, all that information is out there on the Internet, it's just that you need to install networking to access it....

All-in-all I was pleasantly surprised what a good job Dell has done with its GNU/Linux machines. Things aren't perfect, and there's certainly room for improvement in terms of signposting on its Web-site to make the GNU/Linux options easier to find and more immediately attractive. But I will have no hesitation going back to buy more GNU/Linux systems when I need them.

So one year on from my original exhortation to support Dell, I will make another plea: not only should readers of Linux Journal try to buy systems from Dell and other companies that are offering ready-configured GNU/Linux systems, but we should encourage others to do the same, however non-technical they may be. Just be ready to help out with the networking.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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