Dell Inspiron Mini Pricing “Scandal”

Linux users love to be outraged.

Ever since Dell started selling certain models with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled, Linux users on forums and blogs have been complaining that Dell hasn’t been doing Linux justice. Why did they pick Ubuntu instead of another distro? Why is Ubuntu available in that country and not my country? Why is Ubuntu available on only these certain models? Why isn’t Ubuntu advertised better on the Dell website? Why does Dell keep recommending Windows Vista Home Premium, even on the Ubuntu build-your-system-page? And why would a computer with a cost-free operating system (Ubuntu) ever be more expensive or the same cost as the same computer with a costly operating system (Windows)?

Back in 12 July 2007, after much outrage from the Linux community, Dell finally admitted the pricing difference was a mistake:

Dell Ubuntu Linux buyers were recently outraged when a price comparison between identical Inspiron 1420 laptops showed that instead of the Ubuntu system being cheaper, it actually ended up costing $225 more than the same laptop with Vista Home Basic Edition. This was after Dell had announced the week before that Ubuntu systems would be $50 cheaper than similar systems running Vista Home Basic Edition.

“Bottom line this was an oversight, pure and simple,” a Dell spokesperson told DesktopLinux.com. “We will be posting a comment to IdeaStorm to that effect by tomorrow.” In the meantime, Dell says that the prices have been reset to the appropriate prices.

Since then, though, comparative prices of Vista and similarly spec’ed Ubuntu computers has fluctuated. At times, both are roughly the same price. Then Ubuntu is slightly more expensive. Then Ubuntu is slightly cheaper. As far as I can tell, it comes down to Dell occasionally offering special discounts, “instant savings,” and promotional upgrades on only the Vista computers. So if you take the price as is, Ubuntu is cheaper. But if Vista happens to have a special deal that week, Vista will end up cheaper or with better specs for the same price. In other words, Dell is promoting Windows computers and only offering Ubuntu ones.

Various Linux users have proposed reasons as to why the Ubuntu computers might sometimes cost more or be only slightly cheaper than the same Windows computers:

  • Windows computers usually come with what’s known as “crapware” (all the free trial software people typically uninstall—AOL, Norton Antivirus, etc.). Those companies pay Dell to put that “crapware” (i.e., advertising) on its computers. And you typically see these programs on Windows installations more than Ubuntu ones, so the Windows computers are subsidized by third-party software vendors.
  • Windows licenses may be so cheap as to be practically free. Dell probably has bulk deals with Microsoft. I can’t imagine they pay even close to full retail on those OEM Windows licenses.
  • Microsoft, in fact, probably pays Dell. Why else would Dell Recommends Windows Vista Home Premium be plastered all over the Dell website? Do you really think they recommend Vista? No. They’re paid to recommend Vista.
  • Dell has operational costs. It is not as if offering Ubuntu is free, even though the operating system itself is free. It takes a lot of time to develop proposals, test hardware, work with Canonical, develop an infrastructure for support, and adjust the Dell website accordingly in order to offer a new option apart from Windows. Dell has to recoup that loss, just as a bookstore that orders you a special copy of a rare book might have to charge you more for that book than for a New York Times bestseller.
  • There are other components that do cost money. Even though Ubuntu itself is free, Dell has now added in legal commercial DVD playback and MP3 playback. Those licenses cost money, even if the Ubuntu ones don’t.

Given all of those factors, I’m frankly surprised the Ubuntu computers do not always cost more than their Windows counterparts.

I will say that given the price difference is usually quite small, you should buy the Ubuntu model if you want to use Ubuntu (instead of buying the slightly cheaper Windows model and then installing Ubuntu yourself). Just as there are short-term freedoms (I want to play this proprietary multimedia format now) and long-term freedoms (I want to be able to choose what multimedia format I play), there are short-term costs (paying a few dollars more for a Ubuntu laptop) and long-term costs (having Windows continue to be the main or only preinstalled option).

Money talks. Petitions walk.

You can petition and Idea Storm and Digg and blog and forum rant all you want, but if you tell Dell “We want Ubuntu preinstalled!” and then you buy Windows computers and install Ubuntu yourself, you’re really telling Dell “Linux users are all talk and no action,” which also means if you ever want to present Linux as a viable option for someone who wants it, you’ll have to keep telling them “Find a Linux geek to install and configure it for you or become a Linux geek yourself” instead of “Buy it online from this well-known company.”

I know people who pay more for organic or locally grown produce. I know people who pay more to support mom-and-pop businesses over Wal-Mart. Is it so wrong to pay a little more for Ubuntu when you know there are good reasons for it being slightly more expensive (it’s not just “Dell is out to screw us!”)? You can call it “voting with your wallet,” because that’s what it is.

That said, I really don’t understand where the whining about the recent Dell Inspiron Mini 9 release is coming from.

Let’s take a look at this on the US site. Right now, we have three base options:

  • $349 with Ubuntu advertised as 2GB of free internet storage from Box.net
  • $399 with Windows XP advertised as Larger Hard Drive
  • $449 with Windows XP advertised as More Memory and Larger Hard Drive

First of all, the Ubuntu one is the cheapest. I’m not talking value here. I’m not saying if you get the same specs, this one is cheaper than that one. I’m talking sheer money. So if you want to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Talk is cheap, and I should vote with my wallet, but that’s easy to say if you have money,” then that line of reasoning won’t fly. If you’re short on cash and have only $349, Ubuntu is actually your only option.

That said, it’s usually cheaper to have a base model than to upgrade. Some people have pointed out that after you match the Ubuntu specs to the highest model XP specs, the Ubuntu one is more expensive. Yes, that’s true, but after you match the middle-spec’ed XP to the higher-spec’ed XP, it’s also more expensive. After you upgrade the RAM to 1 GB and the hard drive to 16 GB, the middle model becomes $464, which is $15 more than the higher model’s base price ($449). So if you want to argue that Ubuntu is “more expensive” than Windows, you’d also have to recognize that Windows itself is “more expensive” than Windows. As a matter of fact, when you upgrade the Ubuntu model to 1 GB of RAM and a 16 GB hard drive and add in the 0.3 megapixel webcam, it’s also $464.

It’s not exactly clear from Dell’s website whether the XP models have the 2GB of free online storage or not, so I don’t know how that factors into the pricing. The main Mini page seems to indicate it’s Ubuntu-specific, but if you click on the Design tab, it has this little blurb, which seems to be attached to all the Minis:

Keep your files online! We’ve partnered with Box.net to provide 2GB of free internet storage for every Inspiron Mini 9 customer. Store, access, collaborate, and share any type of file through a secure, simple, and intuitive web browser experience. Plus, upgrade to larger accounts to store more files.

All that said, I am a little disappointed with the pricing overall (not Ubuntu pricing v. Windows pricing). When Eee launched its Asus Eee PCs last year, they were hyped as being as low as $199 but eventually came out as $399 with a later $299 model. The Inspiron Minis were hyped as being as low as $299, but now we see the cheapest model is $349, and its specs aren’t much better than the original Eee PCs (Atom processor and slightly larger screen, but that’s it).

I have a feeling netbooks will really take off when you can get a decent model with amazing battery life for $150 or $199.

In the meantime, if you want companies to sell Linux preinstalled computers, you have to buy Linux preinstalled computers. I thought it was “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”

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5 Comments

  1. i thought it was cool for dell to come out with these. and $50 for 2 more inches of screen size seems about right

  2. I purchased the xp mini because it shipped a month earlier than the ubuntu version. Gotta have it now y’know? Hopefully when the ubuntu version catches up with the windows version the mainstream buyers will choose not to pay windows tax (but nobody wants to wait over a month for a laptop)

    I will say this, good article, if I’d have read it before ordering I would have thought twice about ordering xp.

  3. I certainly don’t want people to feel guilty about ordering XP. And wanting it now, as opposed to a month later, depending on your situation, is perfectly fine.

    If people want to buy the XP version, they’re entitled to. It’s their money. I can’t stop them.

    But I do just want people to understand why the pricing might be what it is and also understand the long-term repercussions of our collective individual choices.

  4. When I decided to buy a new computer and go Linux a few months ago, I also did all the price comparisons on the Dell website. My conclusion was that the base models base models were priced to sell, but the boosts–more RAM, larger hard drive–were much more expensive than what you would pay aftermarket. My solution was to buy from the Dell Outlet, where the previously shipped systems had the extra RAM for a lot less (for example, going from 1GB–>2GB was $50 for a new system, but $10 on a previously shipped system).

    Unfortunately, as you might guess, there are no Ubuntu systems in the Dell Outlet. So even though I was very seriously considering ordering a Dell system with Ubuntu preinstalled, I ended up ordering a system from the Dell Outlet with Vista preinstalled and then dual-booting Ubuntu.

    Since this was my first Linux system, I did also want to be able to fall back on Windows if I didn’t like it. But I’ve been happy with it, and for my next computer, I will again look at preinstalled Ubuntu. I would probably be willing to pay a few more dollars to have the “free” OS preinstalled, because there’s value in other aspects of having it prebuilt. This includes voting with your dollars, as you say in the post, but also things like having all the hardware drivers working–I had a bit of a problem getting Ubuntu to work with the integrated graphics on the Dell motherboard, which (I assume) wouldn’t have been a problem with a prebuilt system.

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