Dell tests open-source laptop for developers

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth
Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth

What is it that web developers want? That’s what Dell is trying to find out with its just-launched Project Sputnik, an “experimental” laptop bundled with Ubuntu Linux plus utilities, and with an easy on-ramp to github repositories coming soon. Sputnik looks like Dell’s attempt to wrest the attention of the many web developers that have defected to OS X, but chafe at the restrictions Apple’s walled garden imposes on them.

Barton George, director of Dell’s web vertical, unveiled the project on his blog and Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth showed off the Dell XPS13 laptop laptop running Ubuntu 12.04 at the Ubuntu Developers Summit in Oakland on Monday.

The choice of Ubuntu as the Linux of choice makes sense given its popularity on desktops (and the fact that Canonical, the force behind Ubuntu, collaborated with Dell on the project.) Right now, the Sputnik install image includes drivers and patches (drivers can be a problem with Linux) and utilities. But more important for developers will be the coming ability to download developer “profiles” from github. The first profiles will be for Android, Ruby and JavaScript.

Most Linux distributions come with a downloadable LAMP stack to jump start development. What Dell is doing is giving developers a quick way to find and install a software stack from github so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, said Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady, who consulted with Dell on this project. “If I’m new to PHP or Java or Android, I won’t have to figure out what a capable stack looks like. I can use a cookbook based on others who’ve done it before.”

Peter Eddy, a developer at Boston-based Gazelle, is intrigued. “This sounds like something I had been looking for years before I switched to OS X. I used to use Linux on laptops but it was always a gamble that it would actually work, especially the WiFi and suspend and resume,” he said. Project Sputnik should see traction from Linux developers who defected to the Mac but might come back to save money, he added.

Interestingly, there is no analogous Dell developer laptop for Windows or the other Linux distributions, although that could change, a Dell spokeswoman said. O’Grady said he is not aware of any comparable developer-focused laptops from Hewlett-Packard or other laptop makers. Given the importance of developers to the overall ecosystem, that is somewhat surprising.

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