It seems that Dell is scratching its head trying to figure out what it would take to get Linux on their desktop and laptop systems in order to meet customer demand (as hinted at on the DellIdeaStorm site). But I’m not convinced that preinstallation is what Linux customers really want from Dell or the other hardware vendors. Most experienced sysadmins have preferred distributions, application sets, and partitioning layouts, and it isn’t possible to provide a one-size-fits-all preinstall image. (This problem isn’t unique to Linux — most companies re-image their Windows systems to their liking). Furthermore, the rapid release rate of most distributions would make image preparation a continuous task for the hardware vendors.
What I think we really want is in-tree drivers. If a hardware vendor took pains to ensure that their product lines — or, perhaps, just their “Linux-ready” product line — incorporated only hardware for which there were drivers in the kernel tree (and/or drivers in the major hardware-dependent projects, such as X.org [video] or pam [biometrics & smart cards]), those systems would automatically be compatible with all of the major Linux distributions and would remain so for a reasonable length of time.
This would require the vendor’s systems to be built around established hardware for which drivers already exist, or drivers will need to be pushed into the kernel before the systems are shipped (which creates an interesting problem: how do you get many eyes looking at code for hardware that isn’t available? — but if we wait until the hardware is widely available, then Linux will never support the latest hardware. We may need to rething some of our procedures if we want to see broad support for new hardware in Linux). Of course, there is a third way: design new hardware to use existing protocols and interfaces, in the same way that HP SCSI scanners used a stable protocol for years, Postscript and HP PCL printers are (largely) backwards-compatible (for two decades!), and new USB 2.0 high speed flash drives can be successfully accessed by ancient USB 1.0 storage drivers. This requires good engineering (which is a good thing!).
If such systems were shipped with WhoCaresLinux X.Y.Z, we’d still be happy. We could easily install the latest Ubuntu/SUSE/Fedora/Debian/any distribution with confidence that it would run well.
What do you think: Would you be satisfied to know that a vendor’s system offerings were all covered by in-tree drivers, even if Linux was not preinstalled or the preinstalled distro was not the one you intended to use?