America may be the land of spacious skies and amber waves of grain, but what it doesn't have is major retail stores selling PCs with Linux preloaded. To get those, you need to move to the "developing" world, as Canonical highlighted most recently with plans to sell Ubuntu computers built by Dell in India. Now, the question is: Will this trend ever take off elsewhere on the planet?
Of course, as attentive observers of the open source channel will note, the deal involving Ubuntu PCs in India isn't totally novel. Canonical began pursuing retail outlets as a vector for Ubuntu PC sales in earnest last fall, with a similar partnership launched with Dell in China in October 2011. Around the same time, Asus Ubuntu machines became available at retail outlets in Portugal.
In a sign that those efforts have proven successful, Canonical this week announced an expansion of the Dell program in China, where the number of stores with Ubuntu PCs for sale will increase from 220 to "350 and beyond." Meanwhile, in a new venture apparently modeled on the one in China, Dell computers running Ubuntu will debut in 850 retail outlets in India.
Also of note is that Canonical is stressing its focus not only on individual consumers, but also on "the growing number of SMB and corporate customers using Ubuntu across India." The company clearly sees big opportunities for Ubuntu across the board in India.
Out of India?This most recent Ubuntu news has undoubtedly left some Linux enthusiasts outside China and India wondering when Dell and Canonical might show them the same love it's showering on Asian markets -- or, at least, why a major OEM is selling Ubuntu PCs there in plain daylight, while Linux computers are available in the rest of the world mainly only from small, independent vendors with no retail presence.
The seemingly obvious answer is that China and India, as markets where the number of first-time computer users is still growing rapidly, simply have not yet been saturated by proprietary operating systems to the point that selling Ubuntu to consumers is a steeply uphill battle. And undoubtedly, that's a part of the equation.
But from an historical perspective, I think the issue runs deeper than that. After all, Linux has been around in the United States and Europe almost as long as large numbers of consumers in those countries have been purchasing PCs. Indeed, Linux is older than Windows itself. Yet it never established a major foothold on desktop PCs in "first" world countries. Microsoft's market saturation on its own doesn't explain why the Year of the Linux never occurred there.
So what do Canonical and Dell think Asia has that Europe and the United States don't? For one, perhaps consumers who, with smaller incomes, likely are less inclined to shell out the equivalent of hundreds of dollars for a legal Microsoft operating system. The companies might also be banking on Ubuntu's cultural and political appeal as an internationally developed platform, compared to made-in-America Windows.
But for the moment, it's hard to be certain of anything, and it remains to be seen whether Ubuntu PCs in India will enjoy the "phenomenal" success Canonical has claimed so far in China. Stay tuned.