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By | Ashlee Vance 7th October 2005 20:10

Reg readers take the Dell 'Open-source PC' challenge

Freedom is just another word for nothing to buy

Once upon a time, Michael Dell heard about this thing called Linux. The open-source operating system promised to sweep across PCs all over the world. Ever the low-cost, high-volume guy, Mikey figured he could sell a heck of lot of systems with Linux, and set to work pumping companies such as Red Hat and Eazel with money from Dell's Venture Fund, and even declared that Dell would be the very first major OEM to ship PCs with Linux already installed.

In Redmond, Mikey Dell's plan didn't go over so well. Of all Microsoft's OEMs, Dell was the most favored - because it sold the most boxes. The word came down from the top. Dell would need to put on a tutu and twirl its way back to the all-Windows camp.

"I'm thinking of hitting the OEMs harder than in the past with anti-Linux. ... they should do a delicate dance," Microsoft's OEM enforcer announced.

These days, even without a real Linux on the PC business, Dell still dances more delicately than a ceramic music box ballerina twirling under a Skycar.

Dell wants you to know about something called "Open-Source PCs," which ship with a copy of the widely popular FreeDOS operating system in the packaging material but not installed on the PCs. In theory, this provides an easy path for customers to install any OS they like on the systems.

But this whole public relations exercise in openness began to unravel when we discovered the Windows-less PCs cost more than similar Windows-equipped PCs, and when it's near impossible to purchase an "Open-Source PC," in the first place.

Find the secret doorway, and hover

Dell actually has a menu option that leads you to the "Open-Source PCs" - from the "Home & Home Office" front page. But you must hover your mouse over the "Desktops" tab in the upper-left corner. If you hover long enough, this menu will appear and "Open-Source Desktops" will be near the bottom of the list. With any luck, this is exactly the path you'll use to find the systems. Otherwise, you're in for quite the journey.

Miraculously, since our earlier story popped up, Dell has managed to have its new E510n system actually appear on the "Open-source" n Series desktops section of its site. In addition, Dell yesterday took the time to hike the price of the PC to $824 - closer to the price it had been quoting to reporters earlier in the week - which is well above the $774 a Dell sales staffer found for us, as we had discovered. Dell also removed the flat panel display as a free option.

On its web site, Dell plays with prices a lot. And as Thursday passed, it lowered the price of the E510n to $724 with a "$100 Off Instantly!" rebate. With such a discount, it must be cheaper than the Windows-packed version of the same PC? Yes, finally it is. You'll have to pay $754 for a standard E510 with the same components and Windows XP.

Only a cynic would even suggest that Dell alters its system pricing based on media reports, right? Dell did, however, originally tell reporters that the E510n would cost $849. Then, after it saw our story, Dell lowered the price of the box below the regular E510. But just barely and only with a special discount.

We've noticed that Dell will change its web site and even nudge partner's web sites to fix embarrassing episodes uncovered by the press. But altering a computer's price? Surely not!

[Yep, you guessed it. A few hours after this story appeared, Dell slashed the price on the standard E510 to $704. And the "Open-source" PC? It's still $724.]

I'm sold. Let me at that "Open-Source PC"

So, say you've managed to find the E510n. And say Dell's lack of support for the box doesn't bother you. And say that paying the same for it as a box with Windows - that you could remove and give to your mom - doesn't faze you either. Then you can go ahead and buy one of these suckers, right? Well, sure, unless you're one of the many people who can't.

Reader Nicholas Owens, for example, initiated a chat session with a Dell sales staffer and said he was specifically looking for the new E510n.

Dell asks, "Hi Nicholas, Are you looking for a desktop E510?" - "no, i'm looking for the E510n, the machine that you're offering without an operating system on it.

Dell responds - "Nicholas, Can you give me just a second to find it?"

{Nicholas Owens 8:29:46 AM} sure. But Dell concludes, - "Nicholas, we are not offering the nos systems at this time."


Then there are those Dell customers who have heard that the company will ignore this FreeDOS business if you buy "volume quantities" of PCs and go ahead and install Linux for you. So, reader Joe Estock went to work, trying to buy 150 PCs from Dell with Debian installed.

"Will there be a possibility of them installing Linux for me?," Joe asks. "No," Dell responds. "Ok, then I think my best bet is to either go with HP or IBM," says our man Joe. "I still however suggest you to contact our sales.. department for further updates," pleads the Dell rep.

The Others

And there's another class of Dell customer which has enjoyed the luxury of Linux pre-installs only to see the vendor begin dancing and cut them off.

"Hi Ashlee, i am working for the goverment in Germany," writes Walter. "We have a contract with Dell and normally we order our LINUX systems as PC without OS - no Problem - until recently. Suddenly we are forced to buy WinXP (as it is the cheapest Option). IHMO someone is putting pressure on DELL. it would be interesting to hear if there are other companies (like HP) that do the same ? IMHO there is something going on that has nothing to do with the markets, perhaps something for the EU commission ?"

Or take Niilo Neuvo, the chief technology officer at BaseN.

"We had an interesting incident with Dell. We bought a OptiPlex GX620 Ultra Small Factor machine a couple of weeks ago. The sales rep built us a version of the machine without Windows and all the other desktop stuff (we were planning on using a bunch of these for a computing grid).

"A couple of days ago we decided to buy one with a Pentium-D processor as that is where the world is going anyways. The same sales rep said that when you have Pentium-D processors on this machine she can't configure a setup without Windows.

"These Microsoft hurdles just make life so difficult for no sensible reasons at all. I just don't understand why there are people on this planet that have time to devise rules like these."

But, Niilo, dude, it's as easy as Dell!

And let's not think this is a US-centric story.

Say, for example, that you travel over to this UK page in search of a Dell system with Linux. We've all learned that Dell will not pre-load Linux on a PC, but it's quite proud of the fact that it will pre-load Linux on a workstation. And, luckily, that's what you're after this time.

So, off you go and click "Linux" in the "What Operating System are you looking for" category. Three workstations pop up as options - the Precision 670, Precision 470 and Precision 380. Oh, man, this is looking good.

If you click on any of the three systems, the first screen that pops up won't have an OS choice at all. It will, however, have an ad for Microsoft Office Small Business Edition with Dell recommending the software even though you said you wanted to run Linux. How silly.

No problem. An ad isn't enough to faze you. After all, you're probably man enough to recompile a kernel. So you click on "Customize and Buy" because surely that's where you can pick some kind of Linux OS boxes and move on.

Well, the first option you get for all these boxes is actually WIndows XP Professional. It's the default selection. Dell mentions it twice for one mention of Red Hat Linux, even though you've already told the server that you want to buy Linux. Dell informs you that you'll have to call a customer service representative to order this system with Linux and makes it seem like you'd have to do the same for Windows.

Not true.

If you click "Customize and Buy" one more time, you're taken to a screen with Windows XP Professional SP2 as the only option. You can order that one right off the web site!

Dell, of course, has invested tens of millions in Red Hat through its venture capital arm. But what do we see in the fine print on this new page, "Dell recommends Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional "The Dell Precision 380n supports the Red Hat™ Enterprise Linux Operating System. Please speak to your Dell Representative for further details." That's a solid way to promote one of your investments.

The dance of solidarity

Throughout all of this, we're again left wondering how Dell became the number one seller of PCs in the world. Are these the types of sales techniques all customers have to go through?

While Dell claims to back "Open-source PCs", it does so by making the buying process as difficult as possible: making them difficult to find, making them just as expensive as Windows equivalents when you do find them, and then declaring that it won't support the boxes if you actually use Linux on them.

It's stopped short of including a capsule of bird flu in the packaging, or wiring the modem to make nuisance calls to your mother-in-law. But that would be the next logical step in this much vaunted "Open Source" promotion.

Dell is indeed doing an intricate dance.

It's almost impossible to believe that this self-proclaimed lover of Linux is the most efficient hardware selling machine on the planet. A certain PC company in China may take note as to how tough Dell makes buying a Linux-ready PC. A bit of know how and - who knows? - more customer-friendly tactics may win this race over the long haul.

Until the sleeping giant wakes, a US seller has stepped up to help the poor open-source souls out there. United Networks has Dell boxes ready to ship with SuSE, Fedora, Gentoo, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS or Slackware. They start at $665 without a monitor but with the same components as Dell's new E510n.®

Related links

Dell's Linux PCs vanish
Michael Dell twirls away Linux and Microsoft controversy

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