We recently experienced the ‘fun’ of purchasing a new machine via Dell UK. You’d think things might have changed a little in the past ten years, but it seems not. I’ve tend to avoid purchasing machines in this manner, preferring to either build one up myself or taking the Mac option (as I’m going to be stuck with an OS I don’t want either way, and that also used to get me a PowerPC chip).

You are now supposed to be able to purchase a machine with Ubuntu GNU/Linux installed rather than paying the Microsoft tax for their bloated offering. However, it seems Dell’s Inspiron desktop machines are more expensive when you choose this option, rather than being cheaper as one would expect (buying a eeePC without Windows, for example, saves around a hundred pounds). To find the Ubuntu option, I had to go out and search for it manually. It’s not listed under ‘Operating System’; instead, this seems to be a pseudonym for ‘How much do you want to be ripped off today?’, allowing you to move from the cheaper Home Premium version of Vista up to the ‘Ultimate’ version, and also offering a copy of Windows XP for an extra 10 pounds, should one version of Windows not be enough to satisfy you. They also insist on bundling a copy of Microsoft Works (I assume that’s meant to be sarcastic?). The equivalent Ubuntu machine had a lower specification for the same price, yet MS must be getting a cut of the Windows deal.

If GNU/Linux is going to have any chance of competing on the desktop, then we first need an equal playing field. And that doesn’t include Dell ‘recommending’ Windows Vista and hiding other options away, so that they are only found when people actively go looking for them. Microsoft are only doing what they can to improve their own business and please their shareholders. The problem is that companies like Dell and our governments let them do so, and, in the process, any hope of a free market is destroyed.

In the end, we went with the Windows version simply because we’d have been short changed otherwise. There was no guarantee that Microsoft weren’t getting something out of the Ubuntu desktops too, given the lack of a clear price advantage, and we’d still have had to replace it anyway (I’ve only ever found Ubuntu bloated and slow — maybe this is why it’s winning over Windows users?). Had I been purchasing for myself, I’d have took the third option of not purchasing a machine at all and instead writing to Dell to let them know why they just lost a sale.

Contrary to the popular expectation, I think it’s the existing Windows ‘experts’ who are the problem, the people called round to fix a misbehaving Windows install because they know the right buttons to click. More naive users are usually happy if they can achieve what they want to do. The machine was for my sister, who pretty much insisted that I install GNU/Linux on it when it arrived
and she’s now happily running Fedora on it. Had she stuck with Vista instead, she’d probably have had to spend the same again on applications, whether that be in some monetary form or in time spent searching the web. As it is, everything she’s needed so far is in Fedora and available at a few clicks. Plus it’s Free software, so if she finds and reports a problem, anyone is free to fix it; there’s no reliance on some all-powerful vendor.

Clearly there’s still a lot of room for change. The industry needs to stop avoiding alternative operating systems for fear that someone might run into some incompatibility or other, but instead questioning why these incompatibilities exist in the first place and to aim these questions in the right direction; at the people providing broken non-standard websites, proprietary document formats and Windows-only applications like the BBC’s iPlayer. The ‘main thing to note’ when purchasing a Ubuntu machine from Dell is not ‘when you choose open source you don’t get a Windows® operating system’. A lot of people probably don’t even know what one of them is. The thing to note is that you’re being charged more for less. It may be better, but that doesn’t mean it should cost more. In fact, a GNU/Linux operating system doesn’t have to cost anything — so download and try one today, and feel free to share it with your neighbour.