Here's a look Inside Dell's strategy for Linux PCs

Dell wants more Mac and Windows users to move to Linux with its Project Sputnik effort

In a world of PCs dominated by Windows and Macs, Dell's line of "Project Sputnik" laptops with Ubuntu Linux have secured a cult following.

The latest Project Sputnik laptop is the XPS 13 Developer Edition, which shipped last week. With its sleek design, the XPS 13 brings a new, sexy look to otherwise dull Linux laptop designs.

The XPS 13 DE is also significant because it brings new technologies from the Mac OS and Windows to Linux laptops. The XPS 13 DE models have 4K screens, Intel Skylake chips and the Thunderbolt 3 interconnect, which are new to Linux laptops.

The Linux laptop is a cousin of the XPS 13 with Windows 10, which was announced earlier this year. The Linux version has Ubuntu 14.04, but it couldn't be launched at the same time because the Linux drivers weren't ready. Support for Skylake chips in Ubuntu was announced on Feb. 18, which also held back the laptop's release.

The main goal of Project Sputnik is to speed up adoption of new hardware technologies in Linux laptops. The effort was conceived four years ago by Barton George, a Linux enthusiast and senior principal engineer at the office of the CTO at Dell.

Initially, Sputnik was focused on bringing Linux to "ultrabook"-style laptops with touchscreens, which were relatively new in 2012. Dell provided the latest hardware available, and George's team started tuning Linux to work on those laptops.

The project has since evolved into a broader effort for the open-source community to develop tools, drivers and software for laptops, tablets and other emerging form factors.

Dell will continue to bring new technologies to Linux laptops and is currently developing docking support for the XPS 13 DE. The company will also anticipate and develop software and drivers for technologies like higher-resolution screens, which may appear in future Project Sputnik laptops.

Dell's Project Sputnik fills a vacuum because it is the only major PC maker with such a Linux effort under way. Some other PC makers like System76 also offer Linux laptops, but Dell's laptops have a wider reach.

Dell's wider focus will remain on Windows for its PCs, and Project Sputnik is still seen as a "skunkworks" project directed at Linux enthusiasts. There were some doubts within Dell initially over the project's purpose, but acceptance has grown over the years, as Linux serves a niche, but important, market, George said.

Linux laptops can be intimidating for PC users who have little technical knowledge. For example, the Wi-Fi or components may not work correctly without the right drivers. Finding and loading the drivers can also be challenging.

But as Project Sputnik has grown, so has the demand for its laptops. George has seen Mac users move over to XPS 13 DE, he said. The Mac OS is based on Unix, making it comfortable for users to switch to Linux. The anticipation of the XPS 13 DE was big enough that George spent a lot of time in forums answering availability and technical questions from enthusiasts.

At the heart of Project Sputnik is the open-source ethos to work as a community. Dell engineers work with open-source developers and hardware companies to bring support for the latest hardware to Linux.

"It's not just a hub and spoke where people are asking us questions and we are answering back," George said. "We put in our effort, and the community comes and expands on it."

The XPS 13 DE isn't limited to Ubuntu alone. Dell can certify XPS 13 to work with other Linux distributions, as many drivers developed for the laptop are "upstreamed" to the Linux kernel, George said.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Project Sputnik is building support for basic components like processors, storage and memory.

"It's less about bells and whistles that have made the big difference, it's more about the meats and potatoes," George said.

Not everything runs smoothly. Dell had to scramble to develop the tools to support higher laptop screen resolutions and memory. The company, in some cases, starts work on developing drivers for upcoming technologies but often waits for the market to develop.

Driver development requires Dell to work with OS maker Canonical and the hardware manufacturers. Coordination among the entities can be tricky, and can result in some push-back, but the process is getting smoother, George said.

Dell is working to bring docking support to XPS 13 DE, which will bring more expansion ports to the laptop. Docking support has already been built into the Windows laptops.

Linux doesn't have some cool features like Windows Hello in Windows 10, which allows users to log into laptops through biometric authentication. That isn't something Dell can control until the feature is built into the OS, George said.

One of the successes of Project Sputnik is the "lower-the-ocean" approach, making it easier for users to switch from Windows or Mac to Linux. But George is glad to see Microsoft embracing the open-source community and making SQL Server available for Linux.

"The recent announcement by Microsoft to offer their database on Linux and looking at the OS as not being as important ... it's good to see," George said.

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Agam Shah

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