Dell Updates Project Sputnik Line of Ubuntu Linux Laptops Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Dell Updates Project Sputnik Line of Ubuntu Linux Laptops

Dell's newest Ubuntu Linux-based Project Sputnik laptops, which run Canonical's open source OS, highlight the company's continued commitment to the open source channel

Remember when Dell started shipping PCs with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled in 2007? If not, it's probably because they ended up having little impact on the channel. But in a sign that Dell still believes in the open source market, it recently unveiled an updated edition of its Ubuntu-powered laptop from Project Sputnik.

Launched in 2012, Project Sputnik is a Dell initiative to build Linux-based laptops tailored for cloud developers. They feature high-end hardware based on Dell's XPS line, combined with Canonical's Ubuntu Linux OS and some custom add-ons designed to help programmers test their code for cloud environments.

Since it is aimed at a relatively small group of customers, Project Sputnik is a far cry from the Ubuntu machines that Dell briefly but remarkably marketed to the masses circa 2007. The company is no longer doing that sort of thing.

But, away from the headlines, Project Sputnik has been quietly chugging along over the past several years. On Friday, it rolled out its latest product, the Dell XPS 13 developers edition. This is an updated version of Dell's previous Ubuntu-based XPS laptops.

The big change is the availability of updated hardware. The newest Ubuntu laptops from Dell feature sixth-generation Intel i7 processors, along with up to 16 gigabytes of memory. (Other Ubuntu laptops from the Precision line support as much as 32 gigabytes.) They also include updated versions of Dell's home-grown open source Project Sputnik software for developers.

The new Project Sputnik laptop will run Ubuntu 14.04. Dell says the machines will also support the newest long-term support (LTS) release of Ubuntu, 16.04, when it debuts later this spring.

Dell's Ubuntu laptops are high-end, and their prices reflect that. Customers who want to save money -- which is one reason why some people choose open source environments -- aren't likely to be attracted to them.

But the laptops do have significance for the channel. In particular, they're important because they are the only developer-centric, open source laptops that have the backing of a major hardware vendor. There are some niche companies that sell laptops with Ubuntu preinstalled, like System76 and Zareason, but they are small outfits and not obvious partners for businesses that want to take advantage of Ubuntu. Against this backdrop, Dell continues to play a unique channel role through its sustained commitment to Linux laptops.

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