Dell's Project Sputnik: Linux Hardware for Human Beings?

Published on by Jim Mendenhall

Dell Ubuntu Sputnik

Original scan by Per Olof Forsberg

When I first saw news of Dell’s Project Sputnik, I was pretty excited. I’ve been looking for a good Ultrabook and have been considering buying a Macbook Air to run Ubuntu. As a developer, I was intrigued by the idea of an Ultrabook running Ubuntu and aimed specifically at programmers. After reading more about the project, I feel like this would not only be a great notebook for developers, but something I would suggest to all of my friends and family. Dell is simply focusing on too narrow of a market, instead of making an Ubuntu Ultrabook for developers, they should be making an Ultrabook for human beings!

Let me say that I in no way want to criticize the guys behind this project. Helping developers is a good cause and any work done to make Linux run better on Dell hardware is very much appreciated. I simply think that focusing on developers is not the best idea for Dell. Here are a few reasons why I think Dell should change their focus from developers to general users.

Developers are a small market

While there is a growing community of developers that use Ubuntu as their platform of choice (of which I am one), we must admit that this is a pretty small group of people. Sure, there are a lot of developers out there, but most are programming on Windows or OS X. Even with if you could convince every developer who likes Ubuntu to buy one of these notebooks, I’m afraid that it simply would not be a large enough market for a big company like Dell. Because of this, I predict that we will never see any Project Sputnik notebooks selling on, and if they do, their life will be short lived. While I love the idea of someone making a notebook designed just for me, I think the economics just don’t make sense. Why not focus on general users instead? After all, this seems to be where Canonical’s focus is these days.

Developers are picky about hardware

Spending a lot of time behind the keyboard makes developers picky about hardware. Soon after the announcement was made, developers were already arguing about keyboards and glossy screens in comment threads around the net. Wouldn’t it be more productive to spend time making sure that a larger variety of your hardware works well with Ubuntu. Yes, Dell does have a lot of Ubuntu Certified notebooks, but as an owner of one of these notebooks, I can say that my trackpad and suspend have never worked correctly. As a developer, I’d much rather be able to choose from a larger selection of hardware and be reasonably sure it would function correctly instead of having a single notebook to choose from.

Developers are picky about software (and smart enough to install it)

I’ve never talked to a developer that didn’t have his or her “perfect” setup for programming. This is even more true when talking with open source developers and those who use Linux. Everyone has their favorite text editor, their favorite desktop environment (the first suggestion on IdeaStorm was that they ship Ubuntu without Unity), their favorite tools and workflow, their favorite everything!

Dell says they want to make “a software management tool to go out to a github repository to pull down various developer profiles.” Doesn’t this already exist? We already have the software center, apt-get, puppet and juju charms. I think developers would be better served by Dell focusing on Linux drivers for their notebooks instead of trying to re-invent the developer experience or pre-installing a few packages. Developers are smart enough to install and configure their own machines; it’s not so difficult. It is, however, more difficult for general users.

Create Linux hardware for human beings

Ubuntu became popular by developing “Linux for human beings”, I would encourage Dell and other hardware makers to create Linux hardware for human beings! Canonical has already done the hard work for you and left you with some amazingly low-hanging fruit to harvest. Over the last 7 years, Canonical has made a huge investment in development, design and user testing in order to deliver the absolutely most user-friendly Linux desktop ever. Ubuntu 12.04 is new user friendly, polished and ready for you to take and put on your machines.

Dell, if you’re listening, please take the work that Canonical has already done for you and use it! Choose a few really great notebooks, solve any remaining driver issues, make a custom repository for those drivers and start pre-loading Ubuntu. Make Dell the place where we can send our friends and family when they ask where to get an Ubuntu notebook. Right now, offers only 2 low-end notebooks with an old version of Ubuntu. It makes me depressed to even look at that page, especially when I hear that you’re selling Ubuntu notebooks in other parts of the world, why not in America and Europe? Ubuntu users (including developers) will buy your hardware if it’s nice and well supported. It’s up to you to simply do it before your competition!