Dell Does it Again

One of the first PCs that I bought was a Dell. It came with 8 Mbyte of memory, 230 Mbyte hard disc, and cost a mere £1479 (the HP Laserjet IV cost an extra £1030) - all excluding VAT. Sadly, it was running Windows 3.1, not least because at...


One of the first PCs that I bought was a Dell. It came with 8 Mbyte of memory, 230 Mbyte hard disc, and cost a mere £1479 (the HP Laserjet IV cost an extra £1030) - all excluding VAT. Sadly, it was running Windows 3.1, not least because at this time – 1993 – I had yet to discover free software (and GNU/Linux was, in any case, still pretty rudimentary at this point.)

Since then, I've bought more Dell PCs from time to time, but always with an eye on whether the machine would run GNU/Linux well. In particular, I've always checked whether Dell itself was offering such systems. My view was that if it did, I should buy from them in an attempt to (a) reward them for supporting open source and (b) encourage them to offer more machines.

I've written a couple of times about my experiences in this regard, in Linux Journal in 1997, and in The H more recently.

Both articles noted that Dell's crowdsourcing IdeaStorm site showed a huge demand for Dell systems running GNU/Linux, which I therefore naively expected to manifest itself as more and better support for free software. And yet, as the later article related, my attempts to buy a new Dell system turned into a Kafkaesque quest, with Dell UK apparently hell-bent on making it as hard as possible.

Amazingly – and doubtless coincidentally – shortly after that post, Dell UK did start offering a laptop and a desktop system as things that you could actually buy online. So, following my philosophy of trying to reinforce positive behaviour, I forced myself to buy yet another Ubuntu-based system (OK, I admit it: I bought it pretty much on the spot.)

That was a few months ago. Since then, I decided that my main desktop system was getting a little long in the tooth (and a little noisy in the cooling fan), so I thought I'd take up Dell's kind offer to sell me a system with Ubuntu installed – plus maybe buy another laptop, just in case....

And guess what? Dell has done it again.

Today, when you try to find out about Dell's systems running GNU/Linux, you are once more confronted with a totally unhelpful Web site. There is nothing that I can find on the home page, nor anything on any of the product pages. Searching for "Ubuntu" brings up a load of useless info about printers, plus a tiny link to "Dell Open Source", so small it doesn't even look like a result.

This leads to an otherwise sekrit Web page address. Obviously, that's quite easy to guess if you can't find it on the search page, but generally clairvoyance is not obligatory for buying stuff online. To add insult to injury, the first words on this page are "We're glad you found Dell's Ubuntu website." There then follows ten good reasons to buy a Dell computer running Ubuntu, concluding with:

1) Ubuntu comes pre-loaded with select Dell desktop, notebook, and netbook computers

Beginning in 2007, Dell began shipping computers with Ubuntu. Since then, Dell has shipped more computers pre-loaded and pre-tested with Ubuntu than any other computer maker in the world. Every computer we ship with Ubuntu has been fully tested to ensure the best possible Internet and multimedia experience Linux has to offer.Two high-tech leaders—ensuring Ubuntu on Dell "just works."

Except that this is not true. When you click excitedly on the "Shop Now" button just below this final teaser, you are taken to a page with one, and precisely one, machine that you can buy, a desktop system. Once more, Dell likes to rub it in by running the deeply ironic banner "Ubuntu, Keeps Getting Better!" at the top – even though in my experience, Dell's offering keeps getting worse.

So why do Dell do this? Year after year I try to give my money to them, and year after year, Dell makes this as difficult as possible. Given the fact that the Dell site is plastered with "Dell recommends Windows 7" on just about every page (including the one offering Ubuntu), a cynic might think there is a connection.

Of course, this is part of a much larger problem: that barely any major PC manufacturers offer systems running any kind of GNU/Linux distro. And that ensures that very few people buy such systems, which means that open source remains a niche market on the desktop, so few manufacturers offer PCs with GNU/Linux etc. etc. etc.

By a happy coincidence, the FFII wants to do something about this – or at least about the cognate problem of having to buy PCs with Windows installed, and then needing to go to the trouble of erasing the latter so that you can install GNU/Linux:

"My choice is Debian GNU/Linux", explains FFII Vice president Rene Mages. "Why have I been compelled to pay and erase Windows 7 at purchase time?"

The European Commission admits it was aware of the difficulties encountered by consumers who want to purchase a PC with a non-Microsoft operating system or without any operating system at all. But they also say they lack evidence suggesting that this is the result of practices in violation of EU competition rules.

"We want to crowdsource the collection of evidence", says AFUL's President Laurent Séguin. "If the EU finds anticompetitive agreements that foreclose competition or abuse a dominant position on the relevant market, that would be a magic bullet."

The FFII page has some more background information to the issue, as well as a link to an European Commission form where "Information on competition problems affecting consumers" can be submitted.

It's worth trying, but I have to say I'm not optimistic. Gathering the requisite information will be hard, and I doubt whether the European Commission will do anything about it. More fruitful, perhaps, is simply asking manufacturers like Dell for systems with GNU/Linux installed. If enough people do so it will be in the PC manufacturers' own interest to meet that untapped demand.

One glimmer of hope in that regard is that Dell UK got in touch with me last time I whinged about this problem. Let's hope they are listening now, and start offering more than the rather pathetic single system currently on offer.

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