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Dell puts Sputnik open-source laptop on launch pad

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Dell is building a laptop loaded with open-source software ideal for developers.

One of the company’s open-source geeks has announced Project Sputnik, a six-month venture that will marry the tech titan's XPS 13 Ultrabook, Canonical's Ubuntu 12.04 and cloud-based user profiles. Barton George, Dell cloud computing group evangelist, wrote about Sputnik here.

The idea is to put together a viable GNU/Linux machine that works out of the box, saving punters the bother of embarking on a driver download safari just to get things working.

Two of the top three driver issues with the XPS13-Ubuntu system have already been solved, George says, these being screen brightness and the Wi-Fi hotkey. Improved touchpad and multi-touch support is in progress now that Dell has contacted the touchpad manufacturer to solve it. The PC maker is also working with Canonical to iron out problems.

This isn't the first time Dell has touted Linux: the company sold its Mini 10v, Inspiron 15n and XPS M1330n kit with Ubuntu pre-installed. Since about 2010, though, it stopped selling these machines.

Of course rival OEMs sell computers that can run Linux, with varying degrees of hacking, but these are often netbooks that are not powerful enough for developers - and hardware support goes only so far; WiFi, for example, being a big problem.

For most companies, flogging anything bigger than a pint-sized portable with Linux has not been a goer. It’s made little sense commercially and risks antagonising Windows-developer Microsoft. In many cases, PC makers have simply lacked either the ability to change manufacturing processes or the resources to make Linux work on their hardware - it takes working with a distro biz like Canonical to sort out that fiddly stuff.

Sputnik is not going to change this, so what is Dell – a PC and server maker first and foremost - up to?

George says: “Sputnik is part of an effort by Dell to better understand and serve the needs of developers in web companies. We want to finds ways to make the developer experience as powerful and simple as possible.”

The story of how Apple's Mac laptops became developers' weapon of choice at the expense of Windows is well written. This is not a mass market but it is a strong niche.

Dell is crafting a tool with coders that connects to a GitHub repository and pulls down “developer profiles” – a toolchain configuration built to suit a particular type of work - the first of which are targeting Android, Ruby and JavaScript development. After these Dell wants the community to build profiles of their own and it's inviting feedback at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Oakland, California, this week

George reckons Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth buys into this, and his outfit already has a track record of working with Dell, tuning its hardware to the manufacturer's machines.

“We would have a common set of tools from client, to test, to production, thereby tying Sputnik via a common tool chain to a cloud backend powered by OpenStack. Developers could create “micro clouds” locally and then push them to the cloud writ large,” George said. Dell is a member of OpenStack and has already published a reference architecture for OpenStack and its servers.

“We see a lot of potential in Sputnik to provide developers with a simple and powerful tool,” George added. ®

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