Which distribution on Thinkpads: really the good question to ask?

After Dell, Lenovo decided to ask users which Linux distribution they should put on Thinkpads. Seriously, who cares? If I buy a laptop that comes with Linux pre-installed, my first step would be to reinstall it from scratch, exactly like with a laptop with Windows pre-installed. Because the choices that were made wouldn’t match mine (think of partitioning, etc). Or simply because I wouldn’t totally trust the hardware manufacturer.

So, what would make me happier about a laptop?

  • That installing any recent enough mainstream Linux distribution works without requiring tricks
  • That it’s possible to buy it without an operating system, with no additional charge (and no, I don’t buy the “we need the OS installed to do some quality tests before we ship” argument. USB keys and CDROMs have been bootable for years.)

I couldn’t care less about which distribution comes preinstalled. If Lenovo wants to make me happy, there are two ways:

  • Talk to free software developers: kernel developers, etc. Not distribution developers. And get the required changes merged in, so they will land in my favorite distribution after some time.
  • If they prefer to play on their own, they could create an open “Linux on Lenovo laptops” task force, where they would provide the needed drivers in a way that makes it dead easy to integrate them in Linux distros and to report problems.

It’s not _that_ hard: some manufacturers got it right, at least for some of their products. There are many manufacturers contributing code directly to the Linux kernel, for network drivers for example.

But maybe this is just about marketing and communication, not about results? Because after all, Dell and Lenovo will look nice to the random user. While playing-by-the-rules manufacturers are hidden deep in the Linux changelog.

13 thoughts on “Which distribution on Thinkpads: really the good question to ask?

  1. I think that is more important the fact that if lenovo preinstall some linux distribution, they must to support drivers and software to manage it, for example biometric hardware.
    PS: sorry for my english

  2. One advantage of the poll on their blog is the opportunity for people to voice exactly what you have. As I recall when I looked at the lenovo blog page, the “I don’t care what distro, just provide specs for the hardware” was a popular choice.

  3. I agree completely. One of the biggest problems is the ACPI support, and that’s what needs to be worked on by the manufacturers. I’ve got a Toshiba P100-403, and I need to decompile, edit, and recompile the idsl to get something simple like ACPI and sound working together. And even that isn’t foolproof, because I’m not an ACPI programmer – although I know how to read the errors and how to close open loops and such, doesn’t mean I know what the consequences are for doing so. They do.

    What amuses me the most is that it was these manufacturers that were all consulted to make the ACPI standard in the first place, then they insist on not completing quality testing just because Windows ‘doesn’t care’ about a few loose ends.

    I know what you mean regarding re-installation too, it’s the first thing any serious geek does, pretty much. Usually because they know how to migrate their configurations. Why not offer the latest distros on DVD or CD instead? Probably cheaper to do that than test a complete install each time.

  4. Sure, any serious geek installs his/her own favorite Linux distro, regardless of what is pre-installed… but any serious geek also doesn’t buy a computer with a pre-installed OS in the first place (well, at least in the desktop world… laptops are admittedly a different story). My point is, pre-installed Linux isn’t for people like us, it’s for people who *don’t* install their own OS. It’s for people who are too afraid of their own ineptitude to ever give Linux a chance, because even a LiveCD scares the heck out of them. It’s for mom and pop. It’s for the guy who thinks Linux is cool, but doesn’t have time to “learn how to do it”. This is the age of the Linux desktop we all (or at least many of us) have been waiting for. Linux isn’t just for geeks anymore, and Lenovo doesn’t want to market solely to geeks, because there aren’t really enough of us.

  5. I think the important part is to have Free drivers for everything, that’s why I’m always opposed to having Ubuntu as the pre-installed distribution, because they take the easy path of ignoring freedom. Redhat/Fedora, Suse or debian are much better choices here.

  6. Well, maybe *you* will reinstall the pre-installed Linux…but will your mom do? Or will the companies that buy this computer do? Lenevo is targeting these end users, not you! And that is exactly the nice thing: they spread the message that Linux is ready for such people!

    Besides that, the fact that big resellers are installing Linux on their computers is also very advantageous for you in this way: these resellers will see by themselves how some hardware can make life hard for people installing an alternative OS. They can solve this problem in 2 ways:
    1) Spending a lot of time an money to make specific hardware compatible with Linux.
    2) Do not buy hardware anymore from hardwaremanufacturers that don’t take open specifications serious.

    In the end, it is very likely Lenevo (andothers) will switch to solution #2 because it costs them less money. This is very good because Lenevo also may stop buying hardware from this manufacturer for its Windows-only computers. Why would they? Well, this is what they call economies of scale in parchasing. As you may guess, this is a very good way to force hardware manufacturers to be more Linux friendly. Some time ago Dell send the message that it would like to see ATI/AMD to have better Linux support so that they can use these graphics cards for their computers…only a few months later ATI/AMD announced it’s new “Linux strategy”. I’m pretty sure ATI/AMD wouldn’t have done that so fast and so extreme if Dell did not asked for better drivers. ATI/AMD did this because otherwise they might have lost Dell as a big customer in the future…

    I think this is the *main* good thing about big instances like Dell, HP, Leneva,… preinstalling Linux, and not that we can actually buy Linux preinstalled.

  7. ffdf is exactly right. The people who are going to reinstall the OS do not care what version of Linux comes with the hardware; what they DO care about is good hardware driver support.

    But the other 98% of people in the world would never dare changing the default OS that came with the hardware. So it IS important which distro comes by default. Ubuntu is a great choice for this because it is easy to use.


  8. ffdf and Tristan: what is at stake here is whether this will improve hardware support in Linux. Not improving Linux’s market share.

    By pre-installing Ubuntu with binary only drivers, Lenovo would help people like Wolfger’s mother (and Wolfger should consider being nice to his parents and install Linux for them instead of reading blogs). By shipping hardware that works flawlessly with any Linux distro, Lenovo would be an example, and would help the whole free software world.

    Have a look at http://direct2dell.com/one2one/archive/2007/09/10/29517.aspx . Dell is shipping a remastered Ubuntu 7.04 ISO to allow installation on some laptops (inc. installing non-free drivers). This sucks, because this only helps Ubuntu users. Instead, they should document how to get the systems to work with any Linux distro, in a generic way.

    And finally, note that Thinkpads that ship with SUSE don’t have it pre-installed, but only include a license. If they are going to ship Thinkpads with a Ubuntu CDROM, and charge for it, there’s really no point in this. (except for the marketing/press part, of course).

  9. @Locas: and what about the recent ATI/AMD announcements…Dell influenced this upstream hardware provider. I think this is a *much* better thing than solving the small issues in *Dell computers only* you are pointing at. If they can get all their upstream hardware manufacturers get to be more Linux-friendly, this is *much* more worth than just documenting their hardware. Documenting their hardware is a solution that will have great benefits in the short run, but will have zero benefits in the long run as it needs to be done each time again for each computer they produce. Convincing their upstream hardware manufacturers to switch to a more Linux-friendly development process, has nearly no advantages in the short run, but it has extremely large advantages in the long run because future hardware editions of this hardware manufacturer will also be influenced by this switch. Also, an open-source strategy like that of ATI/AMD can’t be easily reversed. So, if e.g. Microsoft pays Dell a lot to stop being Linux-friendly, we still have the Linux-friendly upstream hardware. Of course, Microsoft can also pay all these upstream hardware manufacturers to stop doing this, but as the Linux strategy of ATI/AMD seems to be very well integrated in their strategy, Microsoft will have to pay a lot to undo this because ATI/AMD will want a lot money for all the costs related to reversing this (also costs related to a blame to their image!!). Microsoft has deep pockets, but they aren’t unlimited ;-)

    +1 for the strategy to focus efforts on convincing (important) upstream hardware manufacturers instead of creating hardware documentation themselves.

  10. This is a good point – that the distro provided matters less than driver availability – however from what I have seen and read, now is not the time to criticize and voice doubts about Lenovo’s strategies. Do you imagine that it’s easy for Lenovo to go Linux? That they really know the community in and out well enough to ask exactly the “right” questions in making this transition? I’d just as soon applaud Lenovo for making this decision, and show my support by providing them with constructive, and patient, recommendations for the next steps.

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