Saturday, June 02, 2007

Nerd Food: On Ubuntu, DELL and the Playstation 3

Unlike many ubunteros, I'm not entirely pleased with the DELL "victory". I mean, I was initially, but reading the small print made me cringe uncontrollably. As a quick summary, for those not following the latest developments, DELL setup a suggestions website called IdeaStorm which was quickly swamped with "I Want Linux" comments. First DELL thought they wouldn't be able to pick and choose from the myriad of available Linux distros, but eventually someone upstairs concluded that Ubuntu was popular enough. As a result, DELL now has a limited range of models with Ubuntu pre-installed (a better description is available here).

While the idea is a good one in principle, the devil is in the details. These machines will not be able to play any of the codecs modern users require, and there will be no DVD support (as in, you can't play movies in encrypted DVD format). This comment is very much telling about the Linux attitude towards the codecs: "they are not free!", "you'd have to install them on windows anyway!", "it's not that hard!".

I've criticised this attitude in the past and will have to do so again. Just because Microsoft, the biggest desktop company in the world, can get away with things, it doesn't mean that all aspiring desktop-wannabees can do it too. Mac is gaining market share because their stuff "just works" - or at least, its perceived as such by everyone. We're not trying to be like Microsoft, we're trying to improve on them. I'm not a stategist, but it seems obvious that DELL and Ubuntu should have talked with Fluendo first before embarking on this adventure and made sure the full range of codecs was available as standard. This would have been great for all parties involved. Fluendo would have agreed to a massively discounted price, a still rather rewarding proposition due to the potential in terms of volume. Codeweavers could have also had a piece of the pie, since software such as iTunes is popular with the crowds. This would have been a more challenging proposition a) because Microsoft seems to dislike Wine quite a lot (and for all we know explicitly asked DELL not to include it) and b) as people start installing random Windows software, the support overload would grow beyond DELL's capacity.

I know Ubuntu has tried to make configuration of codecs and restricted drivers easier but to be absolutely honest, both failed when I tried to use it. The technology does not appear to be entirely mature yet. Now, if the same happens with the newly converts, they will most likely say that "Linux does not work". This was a great chance to woo new users with the beauty of Compiz (if not Beryl), GStreamer et al, but I cannot help but think that a lot of new buyers will end up giving up on Linux because they won't get the whole "configuration" thing. And it's not because Windows is easier to configure; its because Linux is configured differently, and the 50 or so USD you save are not enough to compensate the time needed to learn a new way of doing things.

Which brings me neatly to my next topic. Even more important than DELL is the Playstation 3. There are over 6 million PS3's out there. Some estimate Ubuntu to be installed in 6 to 20 million computers worldwide, so adding 6 million to that number would have a major impact. And the relationship would be entirely symbiotic, since Sony managed to price the PS3 out of the console range and into the low-end PC range; it is possible to buy a DELL model, including a TFT monitor, for around the same price of a PS3 - which is, of course, monitorless. I personally wanted to get a PS3 and use it as a PC, but was not amused when I found out that much of its functionality doesn't work under Linux (including accelerated graphics, wireless, problems with sound - and let's not forget that Flash seems to be 32-bit x86 only at the moment). Not only that, but the entire installation process is non-trivial, meaning that only die-hard ubunteros are going to go for it.

Now, you tell me: if you were a manager at Sony, would you not have started talking to Linux vendors long before the PS3 was due to launch to ensure Linux would be 100% compatible with your hardware? And would you not select a Linux vendor and pre-install the distro? After all, many console users are not IT savvy, they see the console as yet another "white good" in their house. If not, ask youself: what is the point of buying a "'Computer', Not A Console", as Sony's CEO said, if it has no decent general purpose software on it?

Its hard not to feel that we've wasted two great opportunities to fight for market and mind share.

Update: check this for some pics of the setup of a new DELL laptop.


Sardaukar Siet said...

The PS3 had such a troubled "birth" that I'm amazed they still manage to include the Linux feature in - but hey, it's Sony. The DRM-addicted folks that have no ethical issues with non disclosed rootkits and that are still pissed about Beta. Regarding Dell, how long do you think it will take for a "non-free enabler" to surface? ;)

Opportunities are only as good as the eye of the beholder, and unfortunately in Sony's case, and also Dell's it's crazy blind. I like to think Dell, as an OEM, is sick of Microsoft's bullying and is trying to brake free, but maybe I'm a romantic. In any case, it won't work in Linux's state on the desktop IMHO (grandma can still drive a tech support guy to insanity) without substantial reduction of "platform standing", I mean, the Apple approach of reducing the number of devices it runs on - which is kinda weird on the PC world, since there's like 1.5 billion peripherals you can install and that can fail to work in a Linux environment upon plugging in. I just recently installed Fedora 7 and my ASUS laptop won't boot with the USB mouse inserted because of an ACPI bug. Granted, it's not Linux's fault - we all know how ACPI support came to be - but the fact that some things still have to be "hammered" on (portuguese pun here, cool) to work is a bad premiss.

Marco Craveiro said...

man, you made me laugh :-D but yeah, its incredible to see these supposedly very well managed public companies make a mess of a quasi-trivial project.

I do think that Linux has a "problem" with the heterogeneousness of the hardware it targets, and that's why I had so much hope for both DELL and the PS3. After all, they both control the hardware they ship and have enough clout to ensure all devices have decent drivers.

Good luck with Fedora :-) and remember, there's always Ubuntu... :-D