Hallway conversations must be pretty interesting at Dell these days, and no, I’m not talking about the ongoing accounting woes. I’m talking about the company’s announcement late last week that it will soon begin to preload Linux on certain consumer desktops and laptops. Dell’s offered Linux on corporate models before, but the decision to try it on consumer boxes now (they tried once before without big success) should make you sit up and notice. Here’s why:
1. Customers shaped this decision. Dell made the call after launching a new blog about a month ago to solicit ideas and opinions from consumers on Dell products. The desire for Linux quickly bubbled to the top of the comments. In other words, this is a real example of the pearl of wisdom that you always hear at industry conferences: Smart companies will use blogs and wikis to listen to their customers – then not just take credit for listening, but act quickly to address concerns and desires.
2. Linux now sounds less geeky to more people. Sure, PC users have cursed Windows’ instability, security glitches, and usability annoyances for years. But as this Dell move shows, Linux has now gone mainstream enough that everyday consumers understand the benefits. Consider this nugget: Of more than 100,000 respondents to an online survey regarding Linux that Dell did in mid-March on the blog, more than 70 percent said they would use a Dell box with Linux at home or at work.
3. PC companies still want a path to human-free tech support. Dell, like every other PC company on the planet, loathes support costs. One notable question in Dell’s survey yielded this result: A “majority of survey respondents said that existing community-based support forums would meet their technical support needs for a tested and validated Linux operating system on a Dell system.” Do not underestimate the appeal of this sentiment to Dell.
4. The more people use Linux at home, the more they will wonder why they’re not using it at work. Granted, this day is not coming this month or perhaps even this year for most CIOs. But know this: There is nothing like a well-behaved home PC running Linux to make your work PC – and your enterprise IT department’s choices – look dated. As someone who uses a Linux-based notebook at home and a Windows-based notebook at work, I know which one I like better.
5. Linux could take Dell to unexpected places. The PC industry desperately needs design bravery and design geniuses. Industry pundits used to think a “killer app” would help spur PC demand. But now it seems clear that the killer apps are going to be web apps. These apps won’t need more PC power. They’ll need less. What will make people jump up and buy new PCs? Radically better designs. Home PCs that take up far less space. Notebook PCs that don’t get hot on the bottom. Smart phones or PDAs that find ways – think flexible displays or fold-out keyboards – to put the power of a modest laptop in a pocket-size device.
In talking to a colleague here the other day about an article for which CIOs are evaluating smart phones, I said something that struck me in retrospect: There would be absolutely nothing interesting for CIOs to say about desktop PCs.
Nobody’s taking risks with desktop design other than Apple these days.
But if Dell could combine a truly breakthrough desktop or notebook design with Linux, helping keep the price low, it could create some buzz for itself again. Will Dell be the one to step forward with such a product?
I don’t see HP doing it first. I don’t see Lenovo doing it first. If I was working at Dell, I’d be pretty tempted to try. But we’ll have to wait and see where Linux takes the folks in Austin.