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Project Sputnik retrospective: 10 years of developer laptops with Dell

Felipe Vanni

on 15 February 2023

10 years ago, Dell and Canonical launched Project Sputnik, an initiative to deliver high-end Dell systems with Ubuntu preinstalled to meet the needs of application developers. Whereas Dell had previously offered lower-end Linux-enabled laptops, this was the first time that customers had access to powerful systems designed specifically for developers. And just like many of the best projects in the developer space, Sputnik was community-focused from the start. 

Today, the Dell XPS 13 has grown into a long-standing flagship range for Ubuntu-based laptops, used by countless developers around the world. But what most people are not aware of is the unusual journey that led to this point. 

How it all began

Back in 2012, missing drivers were a major obstacle for developers who wanted to run Linux on their workstations. Users either had to write these drivers themselves, or do without them entirely. So when Dell began exploring new ways to deliver value to web companies, creating powerful, developer-focused Ubuntu laptops that “just worked” was an exciting opportunity. 

However, this idea represented a major departure from Dell’s typical strategy at the time. The company primarily targeted high-volume customer segments, and application developers were considered a relatively niche market. Securing buy-in was an uphill struggle, but the challenge did not put off Dell’s Barton George, who soon won an internal innovation fund and a six-month mandate to prove the value of the project.

To make the developer laptops a reality, Dell needed the help of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, to create and maintain the necessary drivers. Canonical was excited to come on board – on the condition that the drivers would be fully open-source and available to everyone. Dell agreed immediately. 

Both Canonical and Dell knew that transparency and commitment to open-source principles were critical to succeeding in the developer space. So in addition to submitting the drivers upstream, the team engaged directly with the community from the outset of the project. The response was staggering, with a massive influx of feedback and more 6,000 developers signing up to join the first beta program.

Since the Dell XPS 13 developer edition first launched in 2012, the Ubuntu-based laptops have gone from strength to strength thanks to improvements driven by ongoing input from the application developer community. The product line has even expanded to include Dell Precision workstations to meet demand for larger screens and even more powerful systems.

What is Ubuntu certification?

The key to the out-of-the-box functionality of these machines is Ubuntu certification, a program which ensures that all of the components in a given computer work as expected straight off-the-shelf and throughout their lifecycles.

Ubuntu-certified devices are based on Long Term Support (LTS) Ubuntu releases, which receive up to 10 years of support and updates from Canonical. Where necessary, certified devices also include specific software and drivers that differ from the default distribution. These are defined in a meta-package that automatically installs the optimal configuration of packages, drivers and kernel to deliver the best experience on that device.

In addition to making up the factory images used by partners such as Dell, meta-packages are also released upstream to the main Ubuntu distribution. This enables users to install or upgrade Ubuntu themselves on certified devices, even if they did not choose a pre-installed machine.

Where is Project Sputnik now?

10 years after the first Ubuntu-based developer laptop was launched, the product line has now reached its 12th generation with the recent release of the Dell XPS 13 Plus Developer Edition. This newest model is up to twice as powerful as its predecessor, boasting a sleek design, 4K+ resolution, up to 32 GB of LPDDR5 5200 MHz RAM, and a host of other features.

True to the original spirit of Project Sputnik, the Dell XPS 13 Plus Developer Edition comes preloaded with Ubuntu Desktop 22.04, giving developers access to the latest open-source tools and capabilities on a system that “just works”.

For a closer look at the fascinating story of how Project Sputnik first got off the ground, read Barton George’s post on Dell’s blog. Or learn more about how Ubuntu Desktop supports developers within organisations.

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