Ubuntu on Dell – A Coming Apocolypse?

In a recent Slashdot article, we get an article from Sal Cangeloso discussing some of the potential up and downsides of Dell's recent decision to put Ubuntu on some of their laptops. He covers some of the obvious aspects such as the potential for Dell to offer lower-cost models based on the lower licensing fees required and the new strains that will come on the infrastructure for updating/downloading software, but I think he misses one major aspect…. technical support.

He begins to address it here:

Another issue consumers face is that of tech support. Dell could have lot of retraining in order to get their support staff ready for dealing with the problems of a second operating system and even though they won't have to worry about systems catching a virus or becoming infected with spyware, problems will inevitably come up. This is especially true once people start calling up about unsupported webcams and other peripherals.

but only looks at it from Dell's point of view and completely misses a bigger second aspect:

What impact will this have on the support community?

At present, we have a great community populated predominantly by geeks who know what they're doing who lead and shepard the newbies* through getting various things functional and tuned to their liking. Yes, it is assumed that Dell's hardware will be compatible and functional out of the box, but the first time a Dell customer adds a peripheral – on average, about 0.3s after opening the box – they're likely to run into problems. While the least technically savvy will immediately call Dell Tech Support and the most technically savvy will know how to fix it, the vast majority of people will simply go to Google to see what they can find.

In no time at all, Dell will add thousands of support requests to the forums and mailing lists which make up the Ubuntu community. This is going to take its toll on the community. A stunningly huge number of people won't think to search the forums for answers and will instead simply post their question for the 38th time. This wastes time of people who simply have to respond with a “follow these directions” and a link, but it also hides the useful information from the people who do know to search. The community needs to be prepared but Dell should also step into the community to get things rolling.

This is a perfect time for Dell – and eventually other system vendors – to encourage and actively participate in these communities. They have the opportunity to set the example for a new level of engagement and information sharing which simply hasn't happened before. Yes, there will be growing pains for everyone involved but imagine the upsides. Dell can step into this community, set the example for involvement, and get back the mindshare with geeks and techs alike for their engagement.

* Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect with the term “newbie”. After buying this laptop in early March 2007, I was one of those newbies who sought out guidance and tips to get my wireless networking and sound fully functional. The guidance and tips found on existing threads resolved my problems in a single evening, but with newer components, it could have been much worse. There are some sharp people out there who are gracious enough to provide step by step instructions and occasionally even look at debug logs.