Becoming a Linux OEM: A Roadmap: Page 2

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Building the business, understanding the challenges that lay ahead.

There is much more to building a successful OEM business with Linux than there is with Windows. Xandros or Linspire for example, are Linux distribution companies that have had OEM deals in the past. And both have had their share of challenges keeping companies on board with their vision of their OS on the OEM machines.

The Linspire CEO, prior to his departure, told me that their core business is OEM in nature. This means that Linspire needed to be developing an ecosystem where the PC seller and their company must be able to maintain a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, unlike Windows OEMs, the vendors that choose to work with Linspire and Xandros have to deal with what I call “Linux challenges” regarding select hardware compatibility.

Both of the above mentioned Linux companies have really poor hardware compatibility lists (HCLs). And each of their distributions, while user friendly, are simply not as 'cutting edge' as the latest Ubuntu or OpenSuSE. On the flip side, however, you do have means of legally using restricted codecs in both distributions without concerns over usage violations here in the U.S. So it's fair to say that there is a balance of usability here.

Despite whatever we may think, it is 'legal' inclusion of these codecs among other 'intellectual rights payments' made to Microsoft that both Linux companies believe will give them an edge in the OEM market with the casual user. OEMs such as System76, Emperor Linux and Linux Certified are not interested in going this route, as they left the choice of using restricted codecs up to the end user. Some call this the purist approach; I call it a balancing act between the two conflicting positions on the use of restricted codecs in Linux.

Choosing your marketplace.

Linux OEMs will, as a rule, gain most of their new customers from online sales, whereas Windows OEMs depend on 'big box stores' and enterprise hardware distributors to get their latest products out to the public. Obviously, the most effective option for you as a potential Linux OEM is to market your pitch and make your sales online.

Before starting there, you'll need to decide on your customer profile. You will be presented with two very different opportunities: Marketing your OEM PCs to those who know what Linux is, and already have an interest in purchasing such a machine for their themselves or for their business; or, simply reproducing what Linspire and Xandros have been doing for the past few years. They've both made a business out of targeting users looking to cut upgrade costs. These users have shown little interest in the politics behind Linux as a whole. And up until recently, this has been a fairly good business for these Linux OEMs.

It should be obvious by now that the two 'player' distributions in the limelight today are Ubuntu and SuSe. With SuSE, there is the debate between SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) and OpenSuSE. With SLED, you have the Novell support team working with you. With OpenSuSE, you are either paying for support on the side or using the community for help.

Ubuntu offers much the same, but without the split of names. Support provided by Canonical is just as valuable to the end user as is support provided by Novell. Just remember, though, Novell has been doing this a bit longer, which might enable clients to feel better.

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