Ubuntu on Dell - Good for Linux or just for Canonical?

by Sander Marechal

After a few unsuccessful attempts to censor the news, the big word is finally out: Dell will sell some desktop and laptop models with Ubuntu Feisty 7.04 pre-installed:

At the end of May, the No. 2 PC maker will begin selling some consumer-focused laptop and desktop models with Ubuntu's new “Feisty Fawn” version of Linux installed, Dell spokesman Kent Cook said. The company announced the Linux move on Tuesday on its IdeaStorm site, launched in February to gather feedback directly from customers about what they want.

Dell also announced that it has improved its Linux forum and has given it prominent placement on its Dell Forums.

Web page.When buying the Dell systems, customers will have the option to purchase support from Ubuntu backer Canonical, said Jane Silber, [Canonical's] director of operations.

So, Dell has chosen the business model of community support, with optional paid support provided by Canonical. In my opinion a smart move because it would have been very hard for Dell to quickly and adequately offer Linux support through their phone helpdesk.

Dell hasn't stated yet exactly on which models it will provide pre-installed Ubuntu, but Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has a nice analysis of the different options and most likely models. One thing sticks out from that list: as bigg on the LXer forum has noticed, they all have Nvidia cards and Broadcom 1390 wireless cards. The Nvidia cards will only work properly (in 3D) with the binary drivers and the 1390 wireless is problematic too, only working properly with ndiswrapper and Windows drivers.

I think it's safe to assume that Dell won't be shipping the Linux computers with such important hardware unconfigured, assuming Dell is serious about Linux and not just using this as leverage against Microsoft. And since I don't expect open source Nvidia and Broadcom drivers to appear in the next month, there are just two possibilities:

  1. In the next month, the hardware configuration of some Dell models will change to hardware supported by open source drivers, such as integrated Intel graphics and wifi.
  2. Dell will ship Ubuntu preconfigured with closed source drivers.

I don't see either option happening actually. Changing the hardware configuration is very hard and expensive for Dell, and shipping closed source drivers preconfigured is certain to draw comments from the open source community. So, is it going to be no 3D and no wireless after all? That's not good for Linux! Many people's first Linux experience is going to be tainted by mucking around to get those working. Expect a large list of “Linux is not ready for the desktop” comments from people who only spent a couple of hours with one of these Dell machines.

When Dell opened it's Linux survey about people's preferred distributions, an oft heard comment was that the distribution did not matter, as long as the hardware was properly supported with free drivers. Too bad that Dell has not taken this advice to heart. They certainly have the capabilities to do so. I have a Dell D520 laptop for work and it works perfectly with Debian/etch, no binary drivers required.

So, with difficult to configure hardware it's not going to be the best thing for Linux in general, not as good as it could have been anyway. But it's certainly going to be good for Canonical. They can expect a large number of people to sign up for paid support, especially because of the hardware difficulties I described above (and if the cost of that support is less than the cost of Windows Vista pre-installed). It's also going to be a big publicity splash for them and their Ubuntu project. Then again, there have been multiple comments pointing out that Mark Shuttleworth's goal is not spreading Linux, but just Canonical/Ubuntu.

I don't think it's all that bad but it's a bit sad that this was not executed better. If Dell and Canonical really wanted to push the envelope then Dell would have designed new hardware especially for Ubuntu, creating a Linux line if you will. Perhaps even creating separate Linux division, free to work with the community. Now we will just have to wait if they manage to launch this idea, or if it's going to flop like it did in 2001, setting back the Linux Desktop by a few years. It's still a full month away. Let's hope they surprise us.

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#1 Carl

A third possibility is that they create a correct xorg.conf to get the proper resolutions pre installed, and use the Ubuntu proprietary driver tool to allow the user to get the binaries. Perfectly viable option if you ask me.

Now, if Ubuntu is the best choice??? Considering Ubuntu Feisty is only supported for 18 months, and that Ubuntu is notorious for its architecture shifts between versions, I see problems arising in the not so very far away future.

#2 OneAndOneIs2 (http://geekblog.oneandoneis2.org)

I've installed Feisty on two machines, one with NVIDIA and one with ATI graphics.

In both cases, as soon as I needed 3D-acceleration, the drivers were correctly-installed for me, by Ubuntu, no effort on my part needed other than to say "Okay, install them"

I fail to see how a process this simple will cause people to have a negative impression of Linux.

Same goes for support of MP3, WMV, etc, which you have unaccountably failed to mention as potential issues. Perhaps because they're not Dell-specific?

#3 tyrrell

"Dell hasn't stated yet exactly on which models it will provide pre-installed Ubuntu"

so first off I'd say wait till they announce it, don't rely on someone else's 'sources', although in fairness they seem accurate.

Second of all I agree with OneAndOneIs2 in that I've never had any troubles configuring Nvidea in feisty, no doubt in my mind people should be able to cope.

finally, Ubuntu has a philosophy of "it just works" and if that takes a few proprietary drivers I'm all for it as long as it gives people the idea that they don't have to settle for Windows and that there are other options out there.

#4 Sander Marechal (http://www.jejik.com)

Ubuntu's closed source driver installer might work for the Nvidia card, but it's certainly not going to work for the Broadcom wireless drivers. Those are Windows drivers that need to be installed with ndiswrapper.

#5 Tyrrell

Very true the dell 1390 wireless cards are notoriously bad even if not using Linux , it's a good thing then that they (as as bigg on the LXer forum has noticed) only 'generally' come with the machines so a change of cards offered for Linux machines should be simple and only the laptops that 'might' be chosen always contain them.

I don't see Dell shifting machines to buyers which they know will cause users problems, the whole point of this exercise is to boost their flagging sales, a PR disaster with wireless cards wouldn't help them at all.

#6 Sander Marechal (http://www.jejik.com)

I don't see Dell shifting machines to buyers which they know will cause users problems

Me neither, which makes Dell's choice of hardware a bit odd, if SJVN's sources are to be trusted. Why not offer, say, Dimensions instead of Inspirons? Linux can already handle Dimensions through open source drivers.

Dell's options look odd anyway. It either has to (a) redesign part of an existing line while they have another viable product in store, (b) try to arrange open source drivers where there currently aren't any or (c) ship hardware that doesn't fully work -- which leads to the question of why Canonical goes along with it.

Option (d) is that SJVN's sources are wrong, which would make this article an exercise in futility. But while I often disagree with SJVN's personal opinions, his sources are rarely wrong.

#7 Tyrrell

Agreed on all points :), lets just both hope that this works out well for the Linux community as a whole. I only wish I could help promote things but living in the UK I can't even vote with my wallet when they
start shipping the Linux machines

#8 Sander Marechal (http://www.jejik.com)

Yes, it's too bad it's a US only affair for now. Let's hope they sell well and that they go global with it. I have some relatives who are due for new hardware near the end of this year :-)

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