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(?) The Answer Guy (!)

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

(?) Linux on Dell Systems

From Mikhail Krichman on Fri, 20 Nov 1998

Dear Mr. Dennis,

Sorry for bothering you out of the blue, but you seem to be THE person to talk to regarding the problems I have.

(!) I wouldn't say I'm THE person. There are thousands of Linux users on the 'net that do the same sorts of support that I do. They just don't get all the glory of a monthly column in LG ;).

(?) I am thinking of buying a Dell computer system (350Mhz, Pentium II desktop). I intend to install Linux on it (to type my dissertation in LaTeX), but I also want to have Win98 and related software, just in case. IN relation to this I have two burning question:

(!) Maybe I could ask you a few questions on LaTeX. I'm writing my book (Linux Systems Administration) in that format because I love the extensibility, the cross references and labels, the indexing, and the ability to focus on structural markup rather than appearance (and to defer many elements of cosmetics to later).
However, it is a pretty complex environment (more programming than composition) and I occasionally get into some tight spots). I'd love to have a LaTeX guru on tap. (Yes, I sometimes post to the comp.text.tex newsgroup; but sometimes I prefer the bandwidth of voice to the precision of e-mail/news text).

(?) 1) My friends warned me that Dell (just as any other brand name computer) may have some proprietary features of the design, which would prevent Linux from functioning properly. Have you had any related problems reported or dealt with?

(!) Actually, Dell owes a tremendous degree of its popularity to the fact that they usually eschew proprietary features and traditionally have produced very compatible systems with consistent quality.
They might not always the the "hottest, coolest, fastest, and latest" --- but a palette load of Dells will all work the same way, probably won't require any special vendor drivers and patches, and won't cost as much as the first tier IBM's and Compaq's (who can afford to devote that extra margin on research and development of cool, fast, late-breaking, bleeding edge and proprietary features).
Many business have standardized on Dell for this reason. Some of these have palettes of these systems drop shipped to them (hundreds at a time in some cases). They want the systems they order next month to work just like the ones they deployed last month --- because having your IS and help desk staff trying to sort out those new "features" can rapidly cost more than the systems themselves.
So, Dell traditionally was noted for it's lack of proprietary frills. However, they've now been the "wunderkind" of the stock market for about the last year. This may spur them to take on the very same "bad attitudes" that provided them with the opportunity to overtake IBM and Compaq in the marketplace.
I should reveal some of my biases and involvement with this issue:
I wrote an open letter to Dell(*) to lobby for customer choice in the bundled software. This was specifically to allow Linux and FreeBSD users to order systems without purchasing software that we don't want and will never use.
They'd initially claimed that there was "no customer demand for this" (which was an offensive lie).
It was later revealed that they had been pre-installing Linux on systems shipped to some select corporate customers in Europe (read: BIG contracts that DEMANDED it) for about a year.
Micheal Dell has recently commented on the issue (though not in response to me, personally) and characterized the demand a "vocal" but not necessarily from a large market segment.
I responded to that as well. (http://www.lwn.net/1998/1112/backpage.phtml).
So, obviously I'm biased. More importantly I've pointed to alternatives. There are a large number of hardware vendors that will respond to their customer's needs.
You can find a list of vendors who will pre-install Linux at: http://www.linux.org/vendors/systems.html
Naturally these are small companies that "nobody" as ever heard of. However, Dell was also an obscure company as little as five or six years ago. So, there's a real chance that one of these vendors will become the next Dell.
I think that Dell will soon "see the light." Although I've lobbied for it and think it would be best of the Linux community as a whole; I have mixed feelings from another tack. I'd really rather see one of the "little guys" (from the Linux vendors list for example) grow into a new powerhouse on Wall Street.
(My superficial impression is that VA Research has the best current head start on this market. However, VA Research focuses entirely on PC's --- and so far refuses to consider Alpha, PowerPC, StrongARM, or other platforms that represent some interesting new options for the Linux user. There's a part of me that is getting REALLY tired of PC's. Linux gives of the choice --- all of the core software that most of use for most of our work is portable and has already been ported to almost a dozen architectures. WE DON'T HAVE TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!).

(?) 2) I really would like to have a DVD-ROM on my machine (III

generation, but I don't know which brand they are offering). Are there DVD-drivers supported by Linux, or, alternatively, will the CD-ROM drivers available with Linux make the DVD-ROM work at least as a CD-ROM?

(!) Quite by chance I noticed that PenguinComputing (http://www.penguincomputing.com --- founded by my friend and fellow SVLUG member, Sam Ockman) now offers DVD Drives on his systems. (*)
I note that there isn't currently any available software to view DVD movies under Linux. However, there's apparently no problem using these drives to read CD discs, including CD-R and CD-RW media.
... He also offers those cool case LCDProc displays there were all the rage at SlashDot (http://www.slashdot.org) earlier this year. These are little backlit LCD panels that you can install in place of a couple of 5.25" drive blankup covers in any normal PC case. You can drive this to provide various types of process status displays.
Anyways, you might want to consider getting the whole system from him. (Editorial disclaimer: I did mention that he's a friend of mine, didn't I? I'm not, however involved in any business with Sam, nor with VA Research --- which is also operated by friends and aquaintances and where Sam used to work, in fact).

(?) Sincerely, Mikhail KRichman

(!) Hope this all Helped.

Copyright © 1998, James T. Dennis
Published in The Linux Gazette Issue 35 December 1998

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