HP makes strides with laptop Linux

Von Neil McAllister

I"ve said before that hardware manufacturers in general, and notebook vendors in particular, need to do more to get Linux running on their products. Now it seems at least one major notebook maker will do just that.

According to German technology news site Heise Online, Hewlett-Packard will offer its customers a special version of Ubuntu Linux designed to run HP notebooks. The free OS will be available to purchasers of HP Compaq models nx6110, nc6120, nc6220, nc6230, and nc6000, as well as the nc4200 subnotebook (though the latter isn"t officially supported).

This isn"t your typical bundled OEM deal, either. HP has worked directly with the Ubuntu people to produce a version of the OS custom-tailored for its laptop hardware. Out of the box, everything should work, from wired and wireless networking to IrDA, Bluetooth, audio, IEEE 1394 (FireWire), 3-D accelerated graphics, and modem. Even the Suspend to Disk and Suspend to RAM power-saving modes are said to work.

There"s a catch, however: This offer doesn"t extend to customers in the United States. In a move that has garnered criticism from stateside Linux faithful, HP will ship Ubuntu only to customers in "EMEA," a region encompassing Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Why there and not here? Sun Microsystems" Jonathan Schwartz may have summed it up best. "The U.S. may be the most cynical market in the world when it comes to alternatives to Microsoft," Schwartz said at a press briefing last year. "We"re also the most robust economy in the world, so when it comes to cost sensitivity, we may not be first on the list."

In other words, hardware vendors won"t ship Linux to American customers because there doesn"t seem to be a market for it. Critics will be quick to point out that this sounds like a catch-22. How can you build a market for a product if you refuse to make the product available?

But don"t fret. To be honest, the media has probably made a bigger deal of HP"s plans than it truly deserves.

For one thing, HP won"t be shipping Ubuntu preinstalled. Customers must take delivery of their laptops with a version of DOS preloaded and then request an Ubuntu CD from HP to install on their own. The CD is provided free of charge, but that"s not saying much when you consider that the Ubuntu Project will ship CDs of its OS to anywhere in the world for free already, shipping included.

HP isn"t taking any extraordinary steps to support its Ubuntu-using customers, either. The HP Ubuntu CD outlines two support options: free support through online sources (mailing lists and bulletin boards) or paid support, not from HP, but from Canonical, the sponsor company of the Ubuntu Project.

All told, those lucky HP EMEA customers aren"t getting a whole lot more than what was available already -- with one important exception, of course: support for HP notebooks. And it"s that point that deserves attention.

By partnering with Ubuntu, HP has made a direct contribution to Linux hardware from which Linux users everywhere benefit. Because of Ubuntu"s staunch adherence to free software principles, you can be sure that whatever code HP engineers may have contributed will eventually become part of the larger Linux universe, available to everyone. Whether HP offers Ubuntu to U.S. customers or not, that"s exactly the kind of vendor contribution I"ve been advocating, and HP should be commended for it.