Dell to users: What do you want in a Linux machine

An online user survey runs through March 23

If you want Dell to build a new laptop or desktop PC with Linux on it, now's the time to tell the company just what you want.

The company has posted an online survey on its US site where prospective buyers can describe just what model of Dell computer they'd like to buy and what version of Linux they'd like to see pre-installed and configured. Options include the commercial version of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, Red Hat Linux Enterprise Desktop and community-supported Red Hat Fedora, OpenSUSE or Ubuntu Linux.

The survey also asks whether the computer would be for home or office use, as well as what kinds of activities it would be used for, including basic productivity, e-mail, Web browsing, gaming, photo editing, music, video editing and software development. The survey also asks whether users want support through e-mail and online forums from Dell, fee-based phone support or support from the open source community.

In a post about the survey on Dell's "Direct2Dell" blog, Matt Domsch, a Linux software architect for the company, wrote that "taking a few minutes to complete this survey will help us define our forthcoming Linux-based system offerings."

Jeremy Bolen, a Dell spokesman, said that the survey is only seeking customer views about what want in Linux-loaded computers. "We're not announcing any specific products today," Bolen said. "We'll give an update on the Linux program in a couple of weeks."

Last month, Dell launched a new IdeaStorm Web site where it asked customers for recommendations about future Dell products and configurations they'd want to buy. One post that got a lot of interest was the idea that Dell bring back a reasonably priced laptop computer that runs Linux.

Then, just a week after debuting the IdeaStorm site, the company said that customer input inspired it to certify some of its hardware as Linux-ready and to make it easier for customers to buy the machines and install Linux themselves. But that move still fell short of actually building and selling Linux-equipped computers to consumers.

The idea for the Linux user survey came from participants on the IdeaStorm site, according to the company.

"The IdeaStorm community's interest in open source solutions like Linux on Dell platforms has come through loud and clear," Dell said in a statement. "Many of you have suggested a survey to help Dell determine which distribution is most popular, and we think that's a great idea. Based on your idea, we now have a short survey, which will be open until March 23, where you can tell us more about your favorite distribution of Linux, your preferred method of support, and more."

Dell already offers factory-installed Linux on some specific Dell Precision workstations for high-end corporate users, but is not currently installing the OS on its other laptops or desktops.

Last month, Bolen said he wouldn't rule out such a move if the demand is there.

The prospect of desktop Linux machines has been debated for several years as an alternative to more expensive and power-hungry operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, but has often fallen short of expectations because of a lack of hardware drivers, software applications and established support mechanisms. That debate continues, with Linux supporters saying those issues continue to be resolved, while naysayers argue that Linux machines can't fill the business needs Windows machines handle.

Dell offered Linux-loaded machines for a short time early in the decade, but the hardware didn't sell well at the time.

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Todd R. Weiss

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