Becoming a Linux OEM: A Roadmap

There's a tidy profit to be made as a Linux OEM, but there are some treacherous challenges as well.
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For years, Microsoft has reigned supreme as the 'only' choice for OEM partners on the x86 architecture. Later on, Apple switched from PPC (Power PC) to x86, but really did not make a dent in the OEM market, as Apple produces its own hardware, with OS X being a means to that end.

Then it happened: Dell dropped their hat into the ring, perhaps prompting what could become a rush of other PC manufacturers and distributors wishing to enter into OEM deals with various Linux distributions. Keep in mind that Dell is hardly doing anything new here. There have been a number of smaller companies that have worked within the Linux space for some time now. Generally referred to as distributors, their goal remains the same – selling pre-installed Linux-based computers to their customers.

Entering a world where Microsoft rules the marketplace.

Is Dell, among others, dead serious about providing Linux computers to their customers over proprietary OS option? I have seen evidence that many multi-OS OEMs remain fearful of Microsoft's control in this area. Hence, the reluctance to dump the Windows OS entirely as a sales platform.

The reasoning behind this likely stems from the belief that Linux distributions such as Ubuntu are simply not 'user friendly' enough. Apparently those who claim that Linux is just not ready have forgotten that when selling PCs pre-installed, most of the perceived hassle has since been removed.

Between common misconceptions from users trying to run distributions on PCs built for Windows, and Microsoft throwing around non-publicly proven patent threats, it's understandable how many U.S.-based OEMs feel a bit uneasy. Some to the point of needing to keep their fingers 'in' the Windows OEM market, just to be safe.

Linux OEM companies can survive, even flourish.

As far as I’m concerned, System76.com remains king here in the States. They've proven that a 'Linux only' approach is strong enough to stand on its own without needing to rely on Windows as a backup OS option to be pre-installed.

System76 has been able to establish itself as a real Linux distributor early on, as it sells both notebooks and desktop machines. Other great examples include Emperor Linux and Linux Certified, both of which have been doing this a lot longer than System76, though only with notebook-based Linux systems.

Besides specializing in Linux-only systems, the best Linux OEMs go that extra mile in customer service, in addition to providing extra needed functionality. Especially when the distribution itself falls short in an area of hardware compatibility.

Custom kernels and driver installers.

System76 and Emperor Linux understand that their customers want a working PC, not a weekend project. This mindset of understanding is critical within the Linux OEM business.

Emperor Linux for example, uses its own custom Linux kernel on each of its offerings. Doing this allows less common hardware such as Evdo-based devices to work out of the box. No other Linux OEM that I am aware of provides this. And trust me when I say that no one other than a system admin or a Linux hobbyist is interested in getting devices like that to work on their own.

Another level of advanced functionality that Emperor Linux enables their users to enjoy is Tablet PC functionality, complete with handwriting recognition and a biometric fingerprint scanner. Again, I know of no other OEM that offers this on their notebook machines from within the Linux world. Emperor Linux provides enterprise level computing for the professional Linux user.

By contrast, System76 is more consumer-oriented with its notebooks and desktop computers. Like Emperor Linux, System76 provides functionality for hardware devices that are not natively supported by the distribution pre-installed on OEM machines. This provides a value-added perspective for the end user. It’s also a fantastic selling point when trying to woo new customers into your marketing web. Remember, it's the job of the Linux OEM to simply make everything work – out of the box, no excuses.

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