Why Dell’s gamble on Linux laptops has paid off

Project Sputnik

Around the same time as the project was gathering momentum a chance meeting with Mark Shuttleworth – who happened to be in the Dell offices discussing Ubuntu – spawned Project Sputnik, a collaboration with Canonical to create a Linux Ultrabook running Ubuntu.

The project was so named due to the fact that Shuttleworth was the second-ever private space visitor. It’s perhaps not common knowledge that when Shuttleworth went into space it was actually on a Soyuz platform. However, Soyuz just doesn’t sound as sexy as Sputnik. Ego played its part and the name stuck adding a certain ‘cool’ vibe to the burgeoning Linux on Dell project.

Building alliances with the right people was key to getting the project out there and people talking about it. As FOSS people know marketing money talks and there usually isn’t much of that in open source.

On a more positive note, Project Sputnik gave the Linux team at Dell a way to get their message out. They ended up working the conference circuit alongside Ubuntu and getting speaker spots at FOSSCONN and other Libre software events. The project was gaining exposure by this point and the dream of an out-of-the-box Linux laptop that ‘just worked’ was becoming a reality. The project’s exposure also made it much harder for Dell to change its mind.

This back story also laid the foundations for the expansion of the Dell Linux laptop range. While still not the company’s bread and butter, it’s obvious the people at Dell have worked hard and there is now a whole micro-site dedicated to Linux laptops including developer laptops, education laptops and mainstream laptops. Purchasers are no longer required to spend more than the cost of a comparative MacBook to get a solid out-of-the-box Linux experience.

The latest range of Dell laptops are based on Kaby Lake CPUs and thankfully now come with several configurable options such as storage and RAM, which is a far cry from the original Gen 1 model and its one configuration. US buyers even get a choice of colours other than laptop grey and black.

Dell’s support for Linux is also now more solidified. Support is provided for the latest LTS (Long Term Support) release of Ubuntu, which is currently 16.04 and supported until 2021.

From the outset, the Linux mission was a project of the people by the people. George was at pains to stress that wherever possible they strongly encourage and persuade the vendors they work with to not only support Linux but to open source the drivers where possible, so that non-Dell users and organisations can also benefit.

Open source drivers have, as we all know, been probably the biggest issue for Linux users. The hope is that with Dell’s successful foray into Linux laptops, it will be able to encourage more component vendors to provide open source drivers with the prospect of a juicy financial carrot rather than a stick.

Not everything is perfect now, however. It doesn’t take much investigation to discover that lots of people have issues with the infamous trackpad on the XPS range. We asked the Linux team about this and it transpires that the issue stems from the fact that Dell deliberately decided to provide consistency across the range and ensure that Ubuntu Linux worked out-of-the-box across any model of Dell laptop.

There is actually a highly optimised driver for the XPS and the M3800 model specifically for Ubuntu but it needs to be enabled by the user. You must actually enable the Cypress touchpad to get a more refined, precision touchpad that Microsoft Windows users get. It’s in the settings now and the issue was fixed in kernel release 3.1.9.

First-class Linux

One thing we were really keen to know was how the project was perceived within Dell. In the past, Microsoft has had a somewhat contentious relationship with OEM vendors who have wished to provide alternative choices to Windows. Most OEMs wouldn’t dare defy Microsoft and jeopardise truckloads of marketing money and preload agreements with various antivirus companies, add-on software and games companies.

In fact, while researching Linux laptops we were even told directly by one very large vendor that they ‘Don’t do Linux laptops and never will because they don’t get the preload revenue from it’. More market share left for Dell. We’re sure Dell doesn’t mind one bit.

For the XPS Linux team at Dell this hasn’t been a huge issue, largely because to advance their cause the developers have learnt to be a little more savvy. The Linux team has held their own and avoided getting into any large-scale arguments with vested parties within the company – killing them with kindness essentially. In fact, ‘Do something and be truthful’ was one of the mantras the Linux team has held themselves to.

So who buys these top-end Linux laptops? Dell’s approach has been to hook the developers, which, in turn, has reeled in other tech-savvy users. In fact, the team say a lot of people are now buying Dell laptops, even with Windows on occasion, because it’s now known that Dell has an extremely compelling Linux offering that a user can investigate later, and even go down the dual-boot between Windows and Linux route, if they so wish: “In making these systems easily available and bundled with Dell ProSupport, we’re recognising that these are first-class users,” Dominguez told us. “It’s no longer just about Windows versus Linux.”

For Dell at least, that $40,000 (£32,000, AU$52,000) gamble has paid off and contributes a not insignificant amount of profit to Dell’s balance sheet. Surprisingly, however, no other manufacturer has attempted to enter this market in a serious way: “As we drive the Sputnik programme forward we will continue to solicit customer input to help steer our efforts,” George told us. “With regards to specific new technologies we will work with the respective vendors and Canonical to enable them for use with our developer systems and in turn the overall Linux ecosystem – our overall goal is to continue to provide a first class Linux-based developer laptop.”

Time will tell if other mainstream manufacturers will follow Dell into the premium Linux laptop market. One thing is for certain – if they do, they will have a hard time trying to find individuals, like George and Dominguez, who believe in what they are doing and have the aptitude and belief to carry it out.