From time to time, Dell does a poor job articulating its Ubuntu Linux strategy. But sources close to Dell and Canonical continue to insist the relationship remains healthy and "stronger than ever." Here's an update on Dell's Ubuntu strategy -- which includes a dramatic Dell-Ubuntu PC push in China.

First, some background: Dell began shipping Ubuntu preloads in mid-2007 on selected U.S. desktops. Dell's decision to offer Ubuntu came only a few months after Microsoft launched Windows Vista. That certainly caught my attention.

By July 2007, I jumped on the Dell Ubuntu bandwagon, and hoped to eventually launch an Ubuntu-centric web site that tracked Canonical's business strategy.

My business partner (Amy Katz) and I discussed the opportunity, and we ultimately funded WorksWithU's soft launch in May 2008, and a full-fledged launch in November 2008.

So yes: Dell's initial commitment to Ubuntu influenced our decision to launch WorksWithU. To Nine Lives Media Inc. (WorksWithU's parent), Dell's Ubuntu move was a significant watershed event for the desktop Linux market.

Evolving Focus

Still, Dell's Ubuntu Linux strategy has suffered from some perception issues. First up, the Dell U.S. web site (www.dell.com/ubuntu) has stopped selling Ubuntu desktops from time to time, and instead emphasizes Ubuntu notebooks and netbooks.

In fact, a quick check of the Dell U.S. site today shows that Dell's Ubuntu portfolio has been reduced to a single fully-baked device (a Mini 10n netbook).

Not exactly a great Ubuntu selection from Dell -- especially when you consider all the Ubuntu notebook, desktop and server innovations from System76 and ZaReason.

Plenty of readers have complained to me about Dell's inability to market Ubuntu desktops in the U.S. and abroad.

Now, The Good News

When it comes to Ubuntu, I still believe Dell deserves the benefit of the doubt. For Dell, Ubuntu has been a grand experiment. I hear the company has tested Ubuntu on everything from mobile internet devices to high-end servers.

That's no small feat. Novell, Red Hat and Microsoft are entrenched on the server. Microsoft and Apple are entrenched on desktops. Yet Dell has continued to test and refine its Ubuntu strategy for nearly three years now. Most recently, Dell has bet its initial cloud partner program on only three companies. Canonical is one of them. Dell, it seems, has a sincere interest in Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud (UEC).

Has any other major PC vendor shown Ubuntu the same attention since 2007? I think not.

Emerging PC Markets

Generally speaking, I think Dell remains highly committed to Ubuntu. But perhaps not in the ways that some customers and Ubuntu users would like.

In mature PC markets like North America, Europe and Australia, Dell hasn't done anything really dramatic with Ubuntu lately. But keep an eye on China. For example, visit www.dell.com.cn (Dell's China web site) and type "Ubuntu" into the search bar.

As of this writing, the online search displayed at least seven Dell systems that offer Ubuntu as a pre-load option in China.

Big Numbers?

Now, let's look at Canonical's potential market opportunity in China. In 2008, total PC shipments in China reached 39.6 million units, up 9.3% from 2007, according to IDC. The research firm estimates PC sales in China rose about 2.7 percent in 2009, and will accelerate to a 21% compound annual growth rate through 2014.

Thanks to Dell, Ubuntu could potentially grab a significant piece of China's PC market.

Bottom Line

Based purely on emotion, I wish Dell would do more to promote Ubuntu in mature markets like the U.S., Europe an Australia.

But based purely on market opportunity, it's easy to see why Dell has been making Blue Ocean Strategy moves -- embracing Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud and Ubuntu netbooks in the U.S., and serving up far more Ubuntu options in China.