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Dell's Ubuntu XPS 13 should worry Microsoft

Analysis Look beyond the price
Mon Dec 03 2012, 17:40

TIN BOX FLOGGER Dell's decision to put arguably its best laptop on sale preloaded with Ubuntu Linux shows not only how far desktop Linux has come but how far Microsoft has fallen.

Dell announced its Project Sputnik earlier this year to a warm if not ecstatic reception. The firm had preloaded Linux onto its consumer machines before but they were hard to find and on forgettable machines. However with the XPS 13 the firm is not only loading Linux on its most high profile laptop but showing that Microsoft's operating system isn't the only choice in town for OEMs and consumers alike.

From a Linux community perspective, Dell's XPS 13 comes with Intel's ultrabook branding, which might mean little to those who actually read and understand specifications but means a lot to the customer in the street who is bombarded with Intel's ultrabook marketing message. Dell might be pitching its Ubuntu XPS 13 laptop as a developer's machine rather than one for Facebook and Youtube users, but that isn't a bad idea in the long run either.

Dell's decision to price the Ubuntu XPS 13 $250 more than its Windows counterpart will no doubt generate debate, with some asking where the so-called Microsoft tax has gone.

However some of Dell's price hike can be explained by the 256GB SSD in the Ubuntu XPS 13, double that on the Windows machine. The rest of the laptop's price can be written off thanks to the lack of bloatware that Dell and other OEMs get compensated to clog new machines with.

The perception that Dell simply downloaded a Ubuntu ISO off Canonical's website and loaded it as opposed to paying Microsoft some cash for a DVD simply isn't accurate on several levels. Enterprise Linux vendors such as Red Hat and Suse do not win business because the operating system has a lower sticker price, but rather lower maintenance cost, better reliability and in the case of Linux, perhaps the ability to replicate the functionality of Microsoft's operating system.

From Dell's point of view, it has to support Ubuntu much in the same way that it supports Microsoft's Windows. Not only does the firm have to make sure that all of the features on its XPS 13 work with Ubuntu but it must ensure that its support staff can deal with users, whether they be technology literate developers or not, running Ubuntu after years of spoon-fed Windows support.

The reason why Dell, HP, Acer and others can offer cheap hardware is because it is subsidised by the bloatware peddlers. For those that value their time, Dell's Ubuntu XPS 13 won't require the ritual that follows the purchase of almost every store-bought Windows machine, that is, to wipe the hard drive and reinstall a bloatware-free version of the operating system.

So Dell's decision to price its Ubuntu XPS 13 a bit higher than the Windows version might not be nice but it can be justified and one hopes that in time price parity will be achieved. However the firm's real problem is that the XPS 13 is starting to show its age, especially given that it is still Dell's showcase laptop no matter what operating system it is running.

Dell could do with upgrading the screen on the XPS 13, which it markets as having just HD 720p resolution, or more accurately 1366x768 resolution. Aside from the boost in storage, the firm has done little to evolve what is otherwise a surprisingly premium design.

Specification issues aside, Dell's decision to market the Ubuntu XPS 13 to developers is a very smart move and one that could pay off in the long term. The firm's literature on the machine says it bundles a number of developer tools that should, in theory at least, help developers get the plumbing of their development environments sorted quickly. Some developers will scoff at Dell's bundle but it shows that the firm is focused on what the Ubuntu XPS 13 will be used for and it certainly beats having a load of toolbars and a trialware antivirus constantly thrashing the hard drive.

Although the Linux community has never been short on developers, having more developers build applications and services on Linux will hurt Microsoft and its long standing strategy of pushing its own programming languages and frameworks, such as .Net, C#, ActiveX and Jscript. And as Dell and its rivals look to push Linux into machines that use consumer hardware, not Xeon processors and SAS hard drive controllers, it will force hardware vendors such as Intel to provide equal levels of Linux kernel support on both consumer and enterprise hardware.

What will really hurt Microsoft in the long run is if Dell or its rival OEMs and third party developers work on building applications that make use of their own services, such as Dell Cloud or music stores. Effectively this will mean that not only will Dell avoid the Microsoft tax but it will have a high quality operating system that isn't bogged down with Windows and bloatware that doesn't even promote its own services, which can offset the loss in revenue from not preloading gigabytes of useless software.

Dell's XPS 13 might not be the best laptop on the market right now, especially alongside Lenovo's X1 Carbon or Apple's Macbook Air, but that the firm is willing to preload Linux on its showcase product just weeks after the launch of Windows 8 must be worrying for Microsoft. Dell has said that it is looking at expanding availability of the Ubuntu XPS 13 outside the US, and while it is not expected to be a sales hit thanks to it being pitched at developers, it does put a stake in the ground for both Dell and Microsoft. µ


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