What the growing OEM support means for the future of Linux

Now that three of the biggest hardware manufacturers in the world offer Linux pre-installed, what does the future hold for further support for the open source platform?

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Image: Jack Wallen

When I first started using Linux in the late 1990s, getting Linux to successfully run on a laptop was the stuff of legends. You might be able to get a distribution installed, but having functional wireless connectivity or sound might well be beyond your skill level. Sometimes it'd mean compiling a custom kernel or installing/patching firmware. No matter what route you took, it required time and effort enough that when you did finally get everything working as it should, you felt like a rock star.

Those were the days.

These days, Linux just works. It's a rare occasion that I run into a piece of hardware that Linux cannot handle. Sure, you might have to install a driver now and then, but even those bits of software are readily available.

Today's world of Linux has one very stark difference to the world when I first entered the realm of open source. That difference is support from OEMs. What was once an impossibility is becoming commonplace. Three of the largest PC manufacturers all support Linux.

  • Dell

  • HP

  • Lenovo

By support, I don't just mean you can successfully install Linux on their hardware. I mean you can purchase their hardware with Linux pre-installed. 

Back in the day, that seemed like little more than a pipe dream.

SEE: Software as a Service (SaaS): A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

For the grace of System76

I want to preface everything I am going to say from this point on by pointing out none of this would have happened were it not for System76. That company has paved the way for large manufacturers to bring high-level support for the Linux operating system. System76 has continually brought high quality laptops and desktops to market. In recent years, the company has seriously upped the ante by creating their own Linux distribution (Pop!_OS) that truly makes their hardware sing.

Without System76 paving this glorious path, I cannot imagine we'd be seeing the rise of OEMs placing Linux on their hardware. Thanks should also be given to System76 for seriously pushing the envelope on the desktop side of things. Their Thelio lineup is nothing short of astonishing.

Growth begets growth

In certain sectors of business, it's always understood that even just the appearance of growth will lead to growth. In other words, if consumers believe a company is growing, they will assume whatever it is that company offers must be worthy of said growth. That idea inspires confidence and confidence leads to purchase. It's not so much a "If you build it they will come," as it is "If others are buying it, I will too."

Although System76 has done an outstanding job of inspiring confidence, to date, it's reach has been limited to a crowd that was already sold on the product. They were, for all intents and purposes, preaching to the choir. 

Why is that the case? Because few outside of those already in the know had heard of System76. They were niche--albeit, a very important niche.

Because of System76, other small vendors decided to toss their hat into the ring. Before long, there were even distribution-specific laptops available for purchase. 

Then came Dell and the XPS 13 Developer Edition, a laptop that reset the bar for Linux laptops. Then came Lenovo. Then came HP.

All three major players now offer hardware with Linux pre-installed. We're not talking servers, this is all about consumer- and business-grade laptops and desktops. 

What happens next?

Now it's 2020 and anyone can purchase a laptop or desktop computer pre-installed with Linux. Thanks to those large OEMs, this trend is only going to continue. I look for other vendors, such as Acer and Asus to start development of Linux pre-installed laptops by the end of 2021. The addition of those two manufacturers will give Linux a foothold in the top five PC manufacturers around the globe.

It won't stop there.

At the moment, most of the Linux pre-installed machines trend toward the higher-spec'd/higher price range. You'd be lucky to find a Linux laptop for under $1,000. Of course, you can get a fully spec'd Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition for less than a low-end MacBook Pro, so it's all relative.

The next step, however, should remedy that. Should those pre-installed Linux laptops and desktops take off, those manufacturers will see the value in that market and Linux will begin trickling down into cheaper models. Once those more cost-effective devices become available, even more people will purchase them. It'll be a domino effect that will have a seriously lasting impact for Linux--one that won't stop.

The big caveat

Here's the one bump in the road that has haunted the Linux community for some time. People are actually going to have to put their money where their mouth is. It's one thing to cheer these decisions by Dell, Lenovo, and HP. It's all great that you're willing to pat them on the back and say, "Go, you!" But these are very large companies and the most important "Huzzah" you can give them is by way of your dollars. 

If those Linux powered laptops and desktops don't fly off the shelves, Lenovo and HP are going to see this as a loss and won't bother to give the open source platform a second try. 

The upshot: If that Linux-powered hardware sells, it'll inspire more and more support for the Linux operating system. That's a win-win for everyone involved. 

As I said, in order for that to happen, you must support in order to get support.    

For those looking to buy, here are some links:

Since the holidays are coming up, now might be a great time to purchase one of the above pieces of hardware to help ensure Linux has a future with OEMs across the board.

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