Do we want, or should we even tolerate a defacto standard GNU/Linux distribution emerging simply because hardware OEM's choose to back one Distribution over others for pre-installation ? Should marketing prowess, mergers, acquisitions, or having loads of cash be the determining factors in what is considered software excellence ?
Do we want a defacto standard to emerge from the upcoming, or to put it more accurately, the on going capitalist, competitive, GNU/Linux distribution Poker games ? Should marketing prowess, mergers, acquisitions, or having loads of cash when getting to the game table be the determining factors in what is considered software excellence ? Do we want, or should we even tolerate a defacto standard GNU/Linux distribution emerging simply because hardware OEM's choose to back one Distribution over others for pre-installation ? A defacto standard community based (non commercial) operating system core that all of the various Distributions then built upon might be desirable and a great thing for compatibility, but we should diligently strive to get, then preserve, a choice of GNU/Linux Distributions available for pre-install by all computer hardware OEM's. A standardized method of achieving this goal should be devised, adopted, then strictly adhered to.
Discussed in this article are some possible avenues and methods for forestalling the emergence of a defacto standard GNU/Linux Distribution while also increasing GNU/Linux' mind and market shares.
Forum and e-mail reactions to my earlier article (Do we really want OEM PC's, Laptops with only GNU/Linux Preinstalled) were wholly predictable. The recurring theme was "We Want Choice!!". Obviously that choice was within the context of being between a Windows or Linux preinstall, or Neither at a reduced price. What about a choice between Linux and Linux preinstall's though ? I think we can safely assume that we all want choice there as well. HP's NX5000 comes with SUSE preinstalled. Do they offer a choice of other Linux distributions preinstalled as well? No? How about buying the NX5000 with no Operating System at a reduced price? No? GNU/Linux finally got a tier one OEM to offer a Windowless computer preinstalled with Linux but unless you are totally enamored of the Novell/SUSE version of GNU/Linux you still have no choice. Should in fairness, HP be expected to offer a choice of all of the hundreds of Linux distros preinstalled ? Of course not. They shouldn't need to be concerned with anything more than the hardware, as I imagine (though don't know) is roughly the arrangement they have with Novell/SUSE. Should we somehow be upset with Novell/SUSE for getting there first? No on that one too. They're just playing a hand of capitalist, competitive, market share Poker. Just like everyone else. Should HP offer the NX5000 with no Operating system preinstalled, just bundling it with a current set of your favorite distros general purpose CD's for the same price ? Why would anyone even want that? What we're looking for is the "works out of the box, put away the Pry Bar and the Valium, Pre-Install !" Right ? I thought so.
What Is A "Pre-installed" Operating System :
Strictly speaking, the concept of a pre-install is, the Operating System is physically on the hard disk drive. Where after pushing the power button then agreeing to (while assuming an appropriately bent over forward posture) the End User License Agreement, you are then greeted by a fully functional, "no fuss" pre-configured operating system, optimized by professionals (Guru's) for your specific hardware platform.
A broader interpretation of the pre-install would be by way of a Recovery/Backup Disk. Where when shipped, the operating system may or may not be physically on the hard disk drive. When it is not, the recovery disk must be inserted into the Optical Disk Drive (CD/DVD/CDRW) then after being presented with a number of simple menu choices (for example: Language, Single System, Dual Boot, etc...) the Operating Systems is installed or an image of the Operating System is then transfered to the Hard Disk Drive. Where in the due course of a few minutes transfer time, you end up with the same "no fuss" fully functional, pre-configured operating system, optimized by professionals (Guru's) for your specific hardware platform.
Both of these methods are good, they get the job done very well. The end results are identical. What is common with both, is that they are absolutely "NOT" General Purpose versions of whatever OS. They are (if done properly) highly tuned to that specific hardware/platform. Hence the end user is presented with stellar performance out of the box and isn't bothered with any core system configurations. Everything just works.The Recovery/Backup disk method has one important advantage however, they reside and are shipped on an external disk or disks, which enables an unlimited selectable choice of operating systems for any given platform, even Dual Boot (having multiple selectable operating systems on one computer).
This Recovery/Backup disk method of pre-installation is the alternative (flip side) to the standard yet still seldom easy GNU/Linux install. Rather than certifying hardware for use with the various general purpose Distributions. The various Distributions are certified, customized, and optimized for use with a specific hardware platform. This affords Distro's the greatest control over the end users installation experience, and lowers precipitously the costs involved with supporting the customers initial setup process. This results in the greatest possible Out Of Box experience (OOB) for the end user which then equates to increased customer satisfaction.
Opportunities Available "Now" :
Within the context of the broad definition of a pre-install (above), if your favorite distribution isn't available today, "preinstalled" on either a Laptop or a PC (and in most cases it isn't), the blame can only be placed squarely in fact on your own favorite distribution. Due to a lack of insight on their part to take advantage of opportunities that are currently available to them. As will be demonstrated here.
Using HP's NX5000 as an example. Any GNU/Linux Distribution could acquire (purchase/borrow) an HP NX5000 Laptop, then set their most competent professionals (Guru's) to the task of creating their best version of an optimized Recovery/Backup disk for pre-install on the NX5000. With or without HP's blessings or consent. With HP's blessing however, depending on what their contractual arrangements are with Novell/SUSE (is it exclusive?), HP could indeed then offer a huge selection of Linux Distro's preinstalled on the NX5000. Simply by ending their area of responsibility at the actual hardware for any Linux Distributions who's custom Recovery/Backup disks they would certify for the NX5000. Leaving software support responsibilities to each of the respective Distributions. Warranty Certification would be necessary to assure avoidance of unfortunate occurrences like the Mandrake "CDROM Killer" Distro of recent memory. Though, even without formal certification, having been set up by professionals (Guru's), problems like these are unlikely to occur again while using the Recovery/Backup disk method of preinstall. These problems would be found prior to release during the Recovery/Backup disk building stage. Of course without HP's blessing, you would have to pay a Novell/SUSE tax when buying the NX5000, but you would ultimately end up with your favorite Distro pre-installed on HP's NX5000 hardware.
Continuing with this line of reasoning, the possibilities become many. Now "Any" Linux capable PC or Laptop available for sale "Anywhere" is a viable candidate for being fitted with an optimized preinstall of your favorite Linux Distribution. With or without the consent of the manufacturer or distributor (think Xbox). Linux Certified for example has a half dozen or so Linux capable Laptops available for sale without Windows. A cursory check found only Xandros and Linspire offered for preinstall at this time. The Recovery/Backup disk method would enable them (Linux Certified) to easily and effortlessly offer a choice of your favorite Distro on all of their PC's and Laptops. Hopefully they would offer this willingly, but they're non consent would not be an effective barrier. Again you would then have to pay either a Xandros or Linspire tax, but you would ultimately end up with your favorite Distro pre-installed on their offerings as well. GNU/Linux value (cheap) boxes have surfaced in the last year or so. This method applies equally to their offerings as well. Barring some kind of contractual restrictions preventing it, there are no good reasons why these PC builders wouldn't want to increase their sales volumes by broadening access to their products and offering choice.
Other avenues for this method of pre-installed GNU/Linux are also available. Alliances could be struck between the Linux community as a whole and/or each individual Linux Distribution, and White Box computer distributors**. Where Linux capable components are preselected and bundled with Linux capable bare bones PC kits to make complete systems. Optimized Recovery/Backup disks are then created on a finished sample kit by any number of the Linux Distributions, then it too is bundled with each kit as per the customers choice of one or of however many different Distro's they want. End result ? Pre-installed OEM class, kit PC's equivalent in performance and functionally to any tier one OEM's offerings (OEM style, fully configured, and DRM free Freevo and MythTV boxes have great potential here).
These kinds of alliances would also have a positive effect on the general availability and identifiability of Linux capable components. Reasoning that allied White Box distributors with even marginal Linux sales volumes would be mindful of their Linux customers when making purchases for their entire inventory. Likely opting to favor components and peripherals that are compatible with both Windows and Linux. It's not unthinkable to imagine seeing at these White Box dealers websites, Tux icons displayed near Linux compatible components, addons and peripherals. This would reduce time wasted searching, and the great frustrations that currently exists identifying Linux capable components because the generic chip sets used in products are seldom listed. There is also nothing to stop their direct competitors from offering identical kits as well which would cause them too to be more mindful of Linux compatibility and identifiability when choosing and displaying their product lines. So too, when you consider that industry analysts estimate that nearly half of all new computers sold are white boxes, hardware manufacturers finding their products passed over because they lack this cross platform capability will likely take steps to remedy this non trivial situation.
GNU/Linux In Retail, Giving Walmart The Dual Boot :
As stated in the earlier article (link above), many end users must Dual Boot if for no other reason than as part of a weening off process from Windows . Where when stumped by some aspect of GNU/Linux, they can run back to the "safety of Windows" (an oxymoron) until they get that particular situation sorted out. And, that if anyone requires Windows and wants Linux too, they will pay a much lower Microsoft tax (OEM Prices instead of Retail) if a Linux capable computer preinstalled with Windows is purchased. Making the best of a less than ideal situation.
Whether serendipitously or by intent, Walmart is currently offering Linux capable Laptops (models A535 and CN6302) at previously unheard of desktop prices. These are perfect candidates and a great opportunity for the various GNU/Linux Distributions to break into retail by making available custom GNU/Linux Recovery/Backup disks that are intended for dual booting on these Laptops. Adopting a "Just do it" posture, would send Walmart a message that the GNU/Linux community will bring the added value of perfectly mated GNU/Linux Distributions to any Linux capable computers they sell. Possibly then (initially) being offered as optional unsupported accessories by Walmart. Absent any major problems developing from this (a test period), at some future point offering a choice of Windows or Linux only computers also.
Walmart is in the supremely enviable position that besides being in and of themselves huge, they sell huge volumes of discount priced computers, but unlike the tier one OEM's, computers are not their life blood. Microsoft can not intimidate Walmart. Putting Walmart (and their direct competitors) at the for front of likely risk free adopters to offer discounted Linux only computers to the main stream retail market.
Microsoft's OEM price for Windows is estimated by industry analysts to be around $50.00 fifty dollars U.S. Estimated because it is a closely guarded secret undoubtedly backed up by NDA (non disclosure agreement). If the various participating GNU/Linux Distributions set their OEM (Linux only) or Accessory (for Dual Boot) price for their offerings at say $20.00 twenty dollars U.S. (same price for even the free distro's). By Walmart offering their customers a choice of Windows or Linux on their computers for the same price (because they can't reveal the Windows OEM price), Walmart would net the additional non trivial estimated amount of $30.00 thirty dollars U.S. profit from the sale of each Linux only computer. A substantial incentive for welcoming GNU/Linux into their product line. Wouldn't you say ?
In our on going capitalist, competitive, GNU/Linux distribution Poker games, default winners being chosen by hardware OEM's should be actively avoided. These hardware OEM's should be encouraged to offer a choice of GNU/Linux Distributions with their hardware offerings. Although Live CD's and General Purpose GNU/Linux Distributions have their place, they simply aren't the best choice in the OEM new computer market where Recovery/Backup disks appear to fit the best for choice and ease of use. There are many market opportunities available today to the GNU/Linux community that aren't being exploited to their fullest potential. Even Dual Boot (Linux/Windows) computers help to increase GNU/Linux mind share if not it's direct market share, but increased mind share eventually leads to increased market share. To achieve this the various GNU/Linux Distributions just need to come to the game table and ante up.
Related Background :
Back in January, 2004, I authored a 5 part series at OsViews (links below) .
What was advocated in this series was for the GNU/Linux community to build and support one platform specific home desktop Kit PC per year. Using generally available commodity hardware chosen specifically so as to reward the chip set makers who best supported Linux. [One Linux Distribution, preconfigured and optimized for this platform would be chosen through a competition of GNU/Linux Gurus], resulting in a simple recovery/backup disk for a "no fuss" pre installation. Promotional materials, ads, artwork and radio and TV spots with GPL type licenses, were also to be obtained through a competition which would complete the total package. The end result of all of this would enable any Linux novice, back yard PC mechanic or Mom and Pop computer dealer to then freely use these "PC kits" to build "Linux only" white box kit PC's for themselves, or to sell in their local markets. Essentially this was a bottom up marketing plan to increase Linux mind and market share by working around the OEM's who were apparently (at that time) afraid or unwilling to buck Microsoft.
As a demonstration of my own lack of insight. The section in brackets [One Linux Distribution, preconfigured and optimized for this platform would be chosen through a competition of GNU/Linux Gurus] shows that the project sought to choose a winner Distribution. In hind sight, all of the various GNU/Linux Distributions interested should have been invited to offer their best efforts at a Recovery/Backup disk for this hardware specific platform. Thereby preserving choice and leaving the competition for a Distribution to the on going competition that exists between the various distro's and is being conducted daily at DistroWatch.
A community wide, specific hardware platform chosen periodically from currently available commodity hardware that all the distro's supported, would still be useful. It would help a lot with apples for apples benchmark comparisons of the various distros, and could help us realize many of the other goals of the original project. Which is, A community built kit PC with no software setup worries for those less experienced with GNU/Linux.
GNU/Linux Home Desktop Kit PC Project: code named Gates Crusher
GNU/Linux Home Desktop Kit PC Project Part 2: Why A Contest
GNU-Linux Home Desktop Kit PC Project Part 3 Why not Lindows?
GNU-Linux Home Desktop Kit PC Project Part 4: Proposed Core Specs
GNU/Linux Home Desktop Kit PC Project Part 5: User Defaults
** In the interest of inclusivity and reaching the widest possible group of people, It may be wise to first choose distributors with toll free numbers and visible, verifiable IRL (In Real Life) addresses. On line-only shopping is not universally accepted. Many Freedom and privacy advocates among GNU/Linux supporters, simply will not make purchases on line.
Copyright 2004 Zeek Greko