Dell unhooks Windows from desktops

What, no Windows? Next month the PC maker will give bulk business customers a choice of buying desktops without Microsoft's operating system, or any other, pre-installed.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Dell Computer is making Windows optional for some of its business desktops.

The PC maker next month will introduce n-Series corporate desktop and workstations that ship without Microsoft's Windows, or any other operating system, pre-installed.

The new desktops appear to be a slick interpretation of Microsoft's new licensing terms and a way to navigate customer demand for PCs without an OS installed. The Microsoft licensing terms, which were put in place on Aug. 1, specify that PC makers must ship PCs with an operating system. The new policy exists to prevent piracy and to better track OS shipments.

With the n-Series, Dell will include a copy of a free operating system--FreeDOS--inside the cardboard box. However, the OS will not be pre-installed, so customers will not have to worry about reconfiguring their machines should they want to use a different product.

Businesses will be able to order n-Series computers, which will be part of the Optiplex line and the Precision workstation line, directly from Dell beginning Sept. 1.

The demand for PCs without OSes, while limited, is often fueled by their convenience, especially for companies that want to experiment with Linux. Many large companies pre-buy Windows through licensing programs and thus have to erase all the software that comes on factory-shipped PCs and reinstall their own. Buying a PC without an OS saves a step and prevents inadvertent dual purchasing.

"Dell's approach has been to sell customers what they want. They've done pretty well with that," said Loren Loverde, director of IDC's PC Tracker service. "Times are such that (PCs without) OS may be an avenue for Dell to work around Microsoft's licensing terms. Ultimately, PC vendors have to respond to their clients, and it's not in their best interest to force something on their clients the clients don't want. At a certain point they're not going to back up Microsoft."

Dell has been shipping PCs without operating systems to its largest customers for some time, offering them a limited number of models of Optiplex and Precision machines.

The company will not promote the new models heavily, let alone make them easy to purchase. Optiplex n-Series desktops will be available only to customers who buy the desktops in large numbers through Dell's Custom Factory Installation program. Individuals will be able to purchase n-Series Precision workstations, but not Optiplex PCs, via Dell's Web site.

The Custom Factory Installation Program allows customers to specify an operating system or have Dell install a customized bundle of software, such as Windows or Red Hat Software's version of Linux.

Corporate clamor
Dell said it's offering n-Series to meet demand from some business customers. Indeed, large companies often install their own software, a practice that helps them keep a better handle on their PCs.

"The overwhelming majority of the systems we ship will go out with a Microsoft OS on them," a company representative said.

N-series PCs will cost the same as PCs that ship with Windows, a Dell representative said.

Selling PCs, especially low-price models aimed at consumers, without an OS could help save costs for manufacturers. In the past few years, as prices for components have fallen, Windows has become one of the more expensive elements of a PC.

While it hasn't created a separate brand, Hewlett-Packard will ship computers bundled with alternatives to Windows through its PC Customization Services program for business customers.

The company will install alternatives, likely various versions of Linux, for customers purchasing between about 100 and 500 PCs. It will adjust pricing as well, dropping prices if the alternative software is cheaper. But it will not offer PCs without an operating system pre-installed, a representative said.

"There's some potential (to catch on), but I'd say it's still early," Loverde said.