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OEM Branded Linux

Last week on Computerworld, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols posted a blog about HP’s forays into the Linux world. Specifically, he wrote about HP’s recent acquisition of both Palm, which gave them the Linux based mobile platform WebOS, and Phoenix Technologies’ HyperSpace, one of those instant-on Linuxes that resides in the BIOS of a laptop to allow users to check email and surf while waiting for the system’s main OS, presumably Windows, to boot.

Vaughan-Nichols thinks HP is planing on developing both platforms, and using them extensively in their products. WebOS, he thinks, will be what HP will build their tablets around, now that they’ve wisely dropped Windows 7 as their tablet OS. He also thinks WebOS will show up in a variety of other HP offerings, in everything from smartphones to Internet connected printers.

His article was interesting enough, but what caught my attention was a seemingly inconsequential line he dropped in the first paragraph: “But, no major OEM has had a house-brand Linux… until now.” This got me thinking about something that’s puzzled me for years. Why has no major OEM bothered to develop their own distro? It would only make sense.

I understand why HP goes with RHEL on their servers. Enterprise users need the stability and support that the Red Hat brand brings them. But why do they offer Ubuntu as the Linux option on their netbooks and notebooks? And why, if you choose to have Linux pre-installed on a computer from Dell, are you offered a usually failed installation of Ubuntu? Wouldn’t it make sense for HP to offer HP-OS, or for Dell to push their own branded DellOS?

I really think that the OEMs are missing the boat here. By now, you’d think these guys would learn a lesson from Android and Apple.

Yes, I said Apple. I think if Michael Dell and Mark Hurd really understood why Apple is able to move millions of Macs they would see a wonderful opportunity for themselves, not only to make a lot of money selling a lot of boxes for their companies, but to decrease Redmond’s control over their business as well.

The average Apple customer doesn’t by Cupertino’s computers because they think the hardware is superior to PCs. Truthfully, apart from the fanboys, the average Apple customer, like the average PC customer, doesn’t know a bit from a byte. They buy Macs at a premium because they ‘re dependable and easy to use. They work, and work well, because Cupertino closely controls the hardware configurations to greatly reduce the possibility of the hardware conflicts that plague Windows and, to a lesser degree, Linux. They’re easy to use because of the great effort Jobs & Company have put into the design of their user interface.

Even people who’ve never seen a Mac have great trust in OSX because of its reputation for being easy to use, few system hang-ups,and no blue screen of death. I daresay that even many users who prefer the PC would happily install OSX on their PCs if it were available.

So what does all of this have to do with OEMs and Linux? Everything. Like OSX, Linux runs with few system hang-ups and with no blue screen of death. In addition, with Linux the user is a couple of mouse clicks away from a plethora of applications – all of which are completely free.

Let’s say Dell decided to hire a group of developers to design their own version of Linux. First, they throw out Gnome and KDE to design their own desktop, one that’s sleek, cool and as functional as anything from Cupertino. They would do this not because there’s anything wrong with either of the two most popular GNU desktops, but so they can create their own unique brand while increasing ease of use for Joe consumer.

After they’ve created this unique branded desktop, they marry this new distro with carefully chosen hardware configurations to create a very dependable, very fast and very enjoyable to use computer. It will be important here to limit their customers configuration choices to insure stability and a good user experience. If a customer wants a hardware configuration not throughly tested and integrated, let them order a machine with either Windows or Ubuntu as the OS, because they’ll need to make sure their OS runs as flawlessly as a Mac. They want their own branded OS to run better than any other OS on their computers. They’ll need to be able to say “we recommend DellOS for this computer” and mean it.

Most of us who use Linux and open source software know this would work, at least on the technical side. Whether you could get such a bird to fly into the arms of consumers is anyone’s guess, but I would bet yes. Maybe not right away, but give it a year or two. With a stable OS, and an attractive, intuitive and easy to use interface, and the power of a Dell or HP 100% behind it, such a project would eventually bear fruit. To help get traction, it might help if they use a scaled down version of this OS on their netbooks and tablets, to get their customers used to using the DellOS of HPOS.

Of course, there will be those who think that such a project couldn’t work because the DellOS wouldn’t be able to run the holy cow of software, MS Office. Actually, I don’t think that matters any more. A lot of people I know use Macs, and many of them no longer use Office at all, now that OpenOffice is available on the Mac. Even a lot of my non-savy Windows using friends feel safe stepping away from Word for OpenOffice. In fact, I think Dell or HP might even do themselves some good by rebranding OpenOffice on their machines as Dell Office Suite or as HProductivity.

Then there’s Photoshop, the other it-won’t-run-on-Linux app that would supposedly be a deal breaker. I don’t think that matters either. Most people who shell out the bucks for Photoshop have a commercial need for Photoshop and run it on a Mac, not on a PC. For the rest of us there’s Gimp, or one of the more simple open source photo editing apps. Again, a little bit of rebranding here might go a long way. Who knows, maybe in a few years people will be buying Dells because they come with Dell Darkroom, a modified version of Gimp, as the must-have photo editing tool for amateur shutterbugs?

So, why aren’t the major OEMs trying something like this instead of offering installs of Ubuntu that don’t work without some command line fixes? To me it makes no sense. Most computer users have never heard of Ubuntu, and they’re not likely to be in a rush to adopt an operating system with an African name and headquartered in South Africa, no matter how much you and I tell them it’s a secure, stable and easy to use OS. Most computer users have heard of Dell and HP, however. These are names they know and trust. Joe consumer would likely be willing to give a DellOS or HPOS a try, especially with the right marketing.

I think eventually we’re going to see something like this happens. As Android gains ground, on smartphones, on tablets and on netbooks, we’re going to see Joe consumer become more comfortable using platforms not designed in Redmond. Eventually Michael Dell will get wise and realize he doesn’t have to go the Ubuntu route, that he can come out with his own branded Linux distro. And if he learns a lesson from Google and Android, he’ll make is version stand out from the rest.

We would all gain from such a scenario, don’t you think? Hell, Google will probably loan him some developers if he’ll merely promise to make them the default search engine. They’ll probably even pay for the traffic too.

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