Intel is going through a major internal struggle over desktop Linux, and the pro-Microsoft marketing droids are currently winning, according to Lindows.com CEO Michael Robertson. As evidence, Robertson puts forward the lack of Linux support for Centrino, the mysterious blocking of his company's request to participate in an Intel roadshow, and the last minute pullout of Intel speakers at his Desktop Linux Summit earlier this year.
"Many inside Intel want to fully back consumer Linux products," says Robertson in one of his racier 'Michael's Minute' bulletins. "Intel engineers are active contributors to Linux software development and do an excellent job of ensuring that the latest chips and motherboards have solid Linux support. They've sent many products to our certification labs as part of that process and we're grateful for their support. However, when it comes to packaging those components into complete computers and announcing their availability, strong resistance emerges. It's a classic 'engineering vs. marketing' business struggle. The technology-minded folks see a growing trend that is imperative for them to support in order to stay fully relevent in all areas of the PC business. While the marketing-minded individuals are more worried about the risk of upsetting Microsoft."
This process perhaps explains the roadshow incident. Lindows.com asked to participate in an upcoming show, and according to Robertson the initial reaction was, 'Great. We'd love to have you participate because we're getting increasing interest in Linux desktop machines.' But once it hit marketing, "we are told we cannot participate even though we are willing to pay the required fees and they have told us there is room. Perhaps it is because Microsoft is also a major sponsor of this event".
Well indeed, given that Microsoft and Lindows.com are currently in litigation there might be a certain amount of friction, but they're grown-ups, so they should be able to behave. Or are they? Can they?
In the case of the Intel speakers' pullout of the Desktop Linux Summit, Robertson says that marketing blocked their participation, citing "branding restrictions". He says he doesn't know what they meant by that, and nor indeed do we. However, it does seem to hint either at restrictive agreements with certain other companies, or some form of internal Intel market segmentation that rules out Linux on the desktop.
Robertson says he's most concerned about the lack of Linux support for Centrino. "Intel says that 300 million dollars will go into advertising this new product for mobile computing, but Intel isn't making the small investment to provide Linux drivers. When you see that 'Centrino' sticker on the computer, you can substitute 'Microsoft Windows XP'."
You can see why this gets to him. Centrino is essentially a marketing gambit, a packaging of the Pentium M and Intel's Pro/wireless 2100 mini-PCI Wi-Fi card. There's nothing wildy clever about this, and from the customer's point of view it's really a trade-off between the convenience of getting it all in one package and being restricted to the Intel Wi-Fi card. From Intel's point of view it's a matter of marketing it for all its worth and thus leveraging itself into a dominant position in the notebook Wi-Fi market. Hence the $300 million.
Lindows.com is the company with the highest profile in preinstalled desktop Linux systems, and recently announced a cheap LindowsOS notebook. And here, we think, is where Michael's antennae start twitching. At the moment Lindows.com has made a fair bit of the running with non-Intel systems. You can get preinstalled Intel LindowsOS machines, but you're probably more likely to end up with AMD, or in the small footprint and portable areas, Via.
To progress in the general OEM market Robertson needs to be able to strike deals with Intel; not to be treated equally with, say, Dell or HP yet, but to be taken seriously. In the notebook and tablet markets, the need for a relationship is surely much greater. Breakthrough into the portable markets has mysteriously eluded Intel's rivals, with Transmeta's near-disappearance, despite early support in the tablet arena from Microsoft, being particularly worth noting. Robertson, as we keep saying, is not stupid, he knows a lot of the money is going to come via portable machines, he also knows how determined Intel is, to own the portable market, and how successful it's been so far.
So while other people might think they'd prefer to buy a Pentium M system and a separate Wi-Fi card, no problem, that $300 million on Centrino marketing hurts Michael deeply. And long term, he's right. For as long as there is no rival that is treated as seriously by Intel in the desktop sector as Microsoft is, then the rivals will find it hard going - they will not be serious rivals. Whether or not the first serious rival should be Michael is an entirely different matter, but credit where credit's due, he's taking a shot at it - who else is? ®