Dell's Ubuntu Laptop Program Enters Beta, 'Blows Away' Expectations

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Fans of Ubuntu Linux may recall a project launched by Dell back in May to create an Ubuntu-loaded laptop specifically for developers.

Dubbed Project Sputnik, the effort back then had already resulted in a prototype open source laptop based on Ubuntu Linux 12.04 “Precise Pangolin” and Dell’s XPS 13 hardware.

Earlier this month, however, the project entered beta and is apparently “rapidly gaining traction” within Dell, according to a recent blog post from Barton George, Dell's director of marketing for the Web vertical.

'Beta Cosmonaut' Program

Dell is now recruiting volunteers for what it calls the “Sputnik Beta Cosmonaut program,” according to George, through which a limited number of applicants will receive a discounted, beta version of the laptop.

To apply, all you need to do is fill out a form on the Dell site; in return, you'll be asked to use the system regularly and offer some honest feedback. (Those who aren't so lucky, of course, can still buy the laptop and download the Ubuntu image and drivers themselves.)

In the meantime, though, I had a chance the other day to speak with George about the project and its goals, both in the long and short term. Here are some of the highlights of what he told me.

'Absolutely Staggering'

“We've been blown away by the number of people who have wanted to be beta participants,” George said.

To wit: George's blog post introducing the project has garnered well over 50,000 page views, he said. “The amount of positive reinforcement was absolutely staggering.”

The project team is now working on a profile tool “that will let you go out to a GitHub respository and pull down developer profiles,” he explained. “We're hoping the community will look to start building more profiles.”

Also in the works is a cloud tool that will let developers work in microclouds on a laptop and then push their creations to the cloud, he added.

The project is now more than halfway through its intended six-month duration, so “we need to make some decisions soon about the next steps,” George told me. “It's looking pretty positive.”

'They Need the Least Support'

Is there any chance of a version targeted towards consumers rather than developers?

“That remains to be seen,” George said.

One reason Dell hasn't been as successful in the past as it could have been with Linux-preloaded desktop hardware “is that we made a consumer version of this without the proper support,” he explained.

This time, “we're targeting developers because they need the least amount of support plus they are extremely influential,” he added.

Dell does currently sell Ubuntu-loaded hardware in China and other parts of the world, George noted.

Possible routes for expanding the project in the future could include not just consumers but also different types of developers, he explained.

'Developers Are the Kingmakers'

Currently, George's short-term goals for Project Sputnik are primarily “to get this to an actual product,” he told me.

Looking ahead, “what I would like to do personally is develop this into a broader developer program for Dell,” he explained. “I'd like to start really working with developers--we haven't targeted them in the past, but we need to learn more about how can we better help Web companies succeed, and developers are the kingmakers,” he added.

In any case, “if this gets the traction I think it will, you can bet Dell will start looking at others who would benefit from a similar solution,” George concluded.

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