Don Marti

Mon 17 Nov 2008 12:44:07 PM PST

Desktop Failures

(updated 18 Nov: Stormy's Asus machine works fine, but only with an alternative distribution, not with the preloaded Linux install.)

Joe Wein compares the pricing of Asus Eee Box computers preloaded with Linux and Microsoft Windows. "Adjusting for the hard drive cost, the Windows version is now $10 cheaper instead of $30 more expensive than the Linux version, money which we can assume came out of Microsoft's revised OEM pricing."

The desktop Linux market is tiny. But it's driving down prices in a much larger market: the one for desktop Windows XP. Microsoft is making Windows XP available for "ultra low-cost PCs" until June 30, 2010. Would we have seen that without Linux netbooks? No way to tell. And of course the real price is impossible to figure out, because co-op marketing money is the loophole in the first Microsoft consent decree. (Microsoft agreed to charge a uniform price, but refunds an undisclosed amount. Take that, DoJ!)

As long as there's a credible Linux threat at the low end of the market, the PC OEMs can expect to earn easy money from subsidized copies of the current low-end OS from Microsoft. Why? Imagine the alternative. Step one: some simplified desktop load based on Linux gets a toehold in the low-end PC market. Step two: users start returning products such as printers and cameras when they don't work out of the box with their low-end PCs which they don't even know are running Linux. Step three: printer and camera manufacturers start taking the minimal steps needed to make their stuff work with Linux. Step four: users with a little higher budget start settling for Linux. And so on.

Every time Consumer Reports has taken a look at a preloaded Linux box, they've hated it. Even worse than their car reviewers hate Jeeps. And we all know there are still areas that are good for more dorky fun than most people would appreciate. Just getting sounds to play when they're supposed to is a mess. How many volume control doo-dads do you really need?

But the cost of the whole desktop Linux project is tiny compared to the potential gains from subsidies to hardware vendors. So it makes sense for those hardware vendors to keep throwing money at Ubuntu to do integration and tweaking. (And of course, to sponsor Fedora to do all the real work that Ubuntu gets all the credit for because Ubunteros and Ubunteras fly around in spaceships and send out free CDs of nekkid pictures. It's true! I read it on LWN!)

Besides, Linux doesn't need to work all that well, usability-wise, to work on the business level. The Asus system that Stormy Peters bought does not have wireless or camera working correctly, unless you do something familiar to 1980s PC users and Linux hobbyists, but not to today's computer customers: install an OS from scratch. The wireless and camera work with up-to-date Linux distributions that you can download, burn to CD, and install, but not with the software that comes on the machine. Linux on the desktop is a failure, but a profitable failure.

IBM, HP, and Lenovo have all introduced Linux laptops and quietly dropped them. Were those projects really failures, as they looked, or were they good for some hush money via the co-op marketing budget?

Meanwhile, if you want a beefier machine, you can still save quite a bit with Linux. Over at Dell's pre-installed Ubuntu page, an XPS M1330 with a Core 2 Duo T5850 (2.16GHz/667Mhz FSB/2MB cache), 4GB RAM, a 320GB SATA Hard Drive (7200RPM), and Intel graphics goes for $1,049. Pretty much the same configuration, but with a faster FSB, is $1,399 with Microsoft Windows. Do the new designs get qualified with the Microsoft-based load first, then Linux? Makes sense considering how many Dell can sell of each.