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Dell Opens Up About Its Linux Efforts And Project Sputnik

Dell’s Barton George has been on a crusade to change how Linux is perceived by both consumers and developers. Six years ago Dell granted George and his team a $40K innovation fund and some freedom to launch a Linux-powered laptop aimed at developers, that would be developed in the open with feedback from the community. This of course became Project Sputnik and began with the outstanding Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, a laptop designed to “just work” out of the box with Ubuntu. I recently spoke at length to George and his team about the initiative and asked him some pressing questions about Project Sputnik and Dell’s Linux efforts in general.

Many of the answers were refreshingly honest.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition may steal the spotlight, but Dell’s Linux efforts outside of it are expansive.Jason Evangelho

Does The XPS 13 Developer Edition Need A Name Change?

The XPS 13 was pivotal in my personal switch to using Linux full-time, but I’m not a developer. I initially received the XPS 13 as a review sample with Windows 10. It ticked all my boxes for being a lightweight machine with a dazzling display to use for writing, research and general everyday use. It became exponentially better once I installed Ubuntu 18.04 on it because the sound and Wireless connections were more stable than Windows, updating the machine was a nag-free experience and the operating system was elegant and stayed out of my way.

I bring this up because prior to being immersed in the world of Linux, I may not have considered buying a “Developer Edition” of the XPS 13 — or any other Dell offering with that name attached to it. It doesn’t necessarily have a consumer-friendly name, yet it’s an ideal device for non-developers who want a rock solid, reliable (and yea, pretty sexy) laptop without the bloat and instability of Windows 10.

Couldn’t Dell shift more of these units if its Ubuntu-powered XPS 13 shipped under a more mainstream name?

Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS pre-installed.Canonical

“We went with Developer Edition because it clearly identified the market we’re talking about. You’re not saying ‘this is everything to all people,'” George says during our chat. “But we do get people saying ‘hey I’m not a developer but I really do like this machine.'”

George also wanted to deter people from buying it just because it was $50 to $100 cheaper than an equivalent Windows 10-powered XPS 13, and thus potentially having an unexpected (or unwanted) experience with Sputnik. But the name change suggestion has been floated to the team repeatedly, and the silver lining is this: “I do like that idea and that’s something I want to start talking about here,” George explains. I’ll be the first to let you know when and how that conversation develops.

Note: Project Sputnik evolved beyond the XPS 13 to include Developer Editions and multiple configurations of Dell’s Precision mobile workstation lineup.

Dell + Linux: Untapped Potential

I wrote earlier this month that Dell shipped Linux across a staggering 162 unique platforms in fiscal year 2019. That statistic actually surprised George; somewhat understandable as Dell is a large company. But after that our conversation was steered into some pretty honest territory, with George admitting that when it comes to shining a light on Linux, there’s room for improvement.

“Sputnik has always been the top-of-the-line Linux offering, but we’ve been ignoring everything else below it,” George says. “So that’s the first thing, unburying the assets we have now and going from there.”

While prepping for this interview, this was probably the chief and most vocal complaint from my Linux community. George and his team are hearing it too. “Looking at Twitter, we see frustration from people saying ‘I know you’ve got stuff, I just can’t find it on Dell.com.’ We’d really kept our light under a bushel. The product management and development resources we put into it — we’re not taking advantage of that,” George confesses. “There’s huge untapped potential. I’m realizing how much we have and how much potential, that I’m super excited.”

But positive changes are afoot in this area, though I can’t speak to any specific details or timelines.

A slide from Barton George’s original Project Sputnik presentation. Presented at OSCON on 7/24/13DELL

One interesting sidenote to all of this is that George recently shifted from Dell’s CTO Office to the client group, and the change came with some anxiety. In his own words: “I was always afraid that the client group would say ‘hey, Sputnik’s great but it’s only making X, we need to pull you off of that and put you on this which is making 4X.’ But I have gotten a much better feeling from all up the command chain that Linux is significant to us and we do want to beef up our efforts. That’s been a big evolution in how people see Linux, and that’s the reason I was willing to jump from the CTO Office to the client group.”

Dell’s Barton George, Project Sputnik lead and founderDELL

Code Talks, But It’s Nothing Without Community

“We would love to see Linux take off, even if it’s just one vendor,” George says. But what’s so refreshing is that Dell not only engages with the community, but is adamant about improving the entire ecosystem — even if that means helping a competitor. Dell has contributed a lot of hours and code into making this very thing happen, as well as working directly with a variety of component manufacturers to develop Linux-friendly drivers.

“Our goal is to be as responsive to the community as possible. Code talks but at the same time, if you don’t have community support around it, that code doesn’t extend as far as it could.  Part of the idea of pushing the community open source ethos, is having the device driver manufacturers push the drivers up to the kernel. So that if a company like Lenovo is using the same component it will work for them. The whole idea is not to go proprietary.”

George also had very positive things to say about the Linux community in general.

“[They’ve] been a huge help too. Like on the forums… We certify on Ubuntu, but say somebody runs Arch or any other flavor. If someone has an issue with the brightness settings, people will help each other solve that. That’s one of the things where it’s not about just Dell talking one-on-one to the community, it’s the community talking to each other. And we want to foster and encourage that.”

On a personal note, that’s the same impression of the Linux community I’ve seen as well, and it rocks.

An Angry Microsoft?

Something I’ve always wondered is how a company like Dell can promote an initiative like Project Sputnik without upsetting a massive partner like Microsoft. After all, might Redmond frown upon seeing an award-winning premium laptop shipping with Ubuntu instead of Windows? Ultimately that isn’t the reality.

George was a bit scared, though!

“When we were launching Sputnik, there was this big fear of Microsoft getting angry,” he says. “The reality is that these are Linux devs. If anything, we’re talking them from Macs. Microsoft is not playing in this space, so it’s not something that will overly affect them.”

To that end, Dell also sells Chromebooks. A few years ago they were shipping Android tablets. In the mid-90’s it even had its own Linux distribution called Dell UNIX.

“It’s just something that’s in Dell’s blood to have different options,” he explains. “It’s always about choice. We always want to give a wide variety of choice to our customers.”

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