Linux PCs: Customer service or lip service?

Despite much hype over Linux, finding a new home PC running the open-source operating system is no easy task. Photos: Looking for a Linux PC

Michael Singer Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Singer
6 min read
Thinking about buying a new Linux-based home PC? Happy hunting.

While for years mainstream computer makers such as IBM, HP and Dell have been professing their love for alternatives to Microsoft Windows, the overwhelming majority of open-source-powered machines are business servers and high-priced workstations.

Finding an entry-level home PC that doesn't have a Windows XP sticker on it requires consumers to search through a maze of Web sites. If they try calling a major PC maker, the agent is likely to have a hard time steering them toward a Linux-based or bare-bones system.

"There is no champion for Linux clients among the major vendors," PC industry analyst Roger Kay said.


What's new:
Installing Linux on a home PC is easy enough. It's buying a Linux-based box that's the trickier part.

Bottom line:
For those enthusiasts looking for PCs running Linux or other open-source operating systems, finding an alternative to Windows from a mainstream vendor can be an arduous process.

More stories on Linux PCs

Red Hat Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said open-source software hasn't caught on in the industry as much as he'd like. Red Hat itself only has a modest Linux product aimed at a relatively narrow set of customers such as those manning the phones at call centers.

"The (Linux) desktop is like teenage sex. Everybody's talking about it, but nobody's doing it," Szulik said during his keynote speech at the Vortex conference in San Francisco last week.

Consumers can always buy a copy of Linux and install it themselves. Best Buy offers Novell's Suse Linux version 10.0 in a box for $59.95. Linspire is offering its shrink-wrapped software for $99.99 online and in stores. Wal-Mart sells Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES v.3.0 Basic Edition for Intel processors online for $348. And as always, downloading an open-source operating system is also an option. However, you need an OS like Windows to connect to the Internet first, unless you've gotten a copy from a co-worker or friend.

Clearly, Windows continues to dominate the computing world. About 94.4 percent of all the PCs and other handheld devices shipped in 2003 run Windows, according to the latest stats published by research firm IDC. Apple Computer's Macintosh OS ranked second, with 3.2 percent of the total operating system market, while Linux placed third with 1.4 percent. Other software, such as DOS, made up the final 1 percent.

About 828.5 million desktops have shipped in the last 10 years, research firm IDC said. The overwhelming majority have some type of Microsoft Windows client running on them.

That's not to say Linux will sit on the sidelines. The operating system in various forms will continue to take a bite out of Windows over the next few years, IDC expects. Sales of PCs running the Linux operating system will reach $10 billion by 2008, according to a 2004 IDC study of the Linux ecosystem. The firm also predicts that the overall Linux ecosystem will grow 25.9 percent annually to reach $35.7 billion in 2008. Of that, IDC estimates $14 billion will be packaged software, $10 billion PCs and $11 billion servers.

Linux PCs

Even though the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco two years ago saw a considerable amount of buzz about breaking the Windows stronghold, talk about Linux on the desktop has all but faded, leaving vendors to fend for themselves.

"It's no surprise that there are only a handful of non-Microsoft offerings out there for consumers today. Desktop Linux only makes up between 1 and 3 percent of the market, depending on which way you look at the data," IDC analyst Al Gillen said.

Gillen did offer a ray of light to Linux fans. "I would argue that at least the PC vendors are making an effort to meet demand to offer alternatives to Microsoft," he said.

Linux is not an impulse buy that consumers just stumble across and purchase, Gillen noted. Most buyers of PCs loaded with Linux or open-source operating systems are technically savvy customers who have a very good idea what they are looking for.

Nevertheless, finding an alternative to Windows from a mainstream vendor can be an arduous process.

After Dell's announcement earlier this month of its Dimension E510n--which ships without an operating system installed--CNET News.com attempted to find out how difficult it would be for a consumer to find the PC.

Dell's Web site offers a wide array of Dimension PCs and XPS-branded computers running Windows, but no open-source-powered PCs. A query in the Dell search bar for Linux resulted in a list of server support options, but still no consumer products.

A search for "open source" turned up Dell's "N-series" of desktops that the company has supported since 2003. The Dimension E510n comes with a blank hard drive and a copy of the FreeDOS operating system that can be installed by customers. The E510n PC retailed for $849 at the time of the original search. The company now sells a similarly configured 5150n for $559.

"We are seeing increased interest in Linux clients from our customers, particularly in regions outside North America."
--Ali Kops, HP spokeswoman

A quick call to a Dell service representative resulted in a similar situation. A simple question about a Linux or non-Windows operating system on a Dell PC resulted in a quick question to a supervisor and a return trip to the exact same site, found via an online search. Total time for both searches: 30 minutes.

Dell spokeswoman Anne Camden said the Round Rock, Texas-based company continues to gauge its supply of open-source-based PCs according to demand. The company is currently considering offering an open-source version of its Latitude laptop computer in North America to match its overseas product lines.

Similar searches for open-source PCs on the Gateway and Lenovo U.S. Web sites proved fruitless. Calls to the companies' service departments revealed that neither company pre-installs anything but Windows on consumer desktop products. The Gateway service representative added that loading anything but Windows on a Gateway desktop would invalidate the warranty. The Lenovo agent directed callers to IBM's business group, to talk to someone about workstations.

Hewlett-Packard was the only mainstream vendor other than Dell that would sell a PC with non-Windows operating systems. However, it did not have this as an option on its consumer-focused Pavilion computers. It did have an extensive selection of workstations, including a HP Compaq dx2000 micro tower shipping with Mandrake Linux version 9.2, priced at $462.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP said it ships more than 100,000 Linux desktops per quarter worldwide and said it is doing better overseas, especially with small to medium-size businesses.

"We are seeing increased interest in Linux clients from our customers, particularly in regions outside North America. For example, Linux in China has a 40 percent growth rate, and we are positioning HP to accommodate customer demand in those markets," company spokeswoman Ali Kops said.

In stock overseas
While American consumers are having a hard time finding Window-less PCs, their counterparts in Europe, Asia and Japan have a much easier path.

Outside the United States, it's easier to buy a desktop with non-Microsoft operating systems pre-installed. HP's Web store in the Netherlands offered three HP Compaq computers with Windows XP, Suse Linux 9.3 or FreeDOS for the same price. These models retail starting at $806 (669 euros), excluding sales tax.

Dell announced it was selling a laptop with Mandriva Linux for $916 (759 euros) in September. Aimed at French students looking for a bargain, the Latitude 110L model is installed with Mandriva Linux Limited Edition 2005, which includes various open-source applications, such as the productivity suite OpenOffice.org, image manipulation application GIMP and the Firefox browser.

Mandriva CEO Francois Bancilhon said the PC makers are seeing more growth potential for open-source computers in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, as a result of cost and licensing concerns among customers.

"You have to understand that for a lot of these players, it starts with price," Bancilhon said. "There are a number of projects there that Mandriva is working on in which the country helps to fund. We are also talking to several of the hardware vendors in other countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia."

Ultimately, PC makers are feeding into consumers' comfort level, IDC's Gillen said. "From IDC's perspective, open-source companies in the United States are competing against a well-entrenched competitor in Microsoft with a locked-in base," he said.