Five Years Building Ubuntu PC’s
System76 turned five earlier this week, which makes for a great opportunity to take a look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. I’ve had the great pleasure of co-founding and leading this company. I work with an exceptional team that is dedicated to customers and to building the next-generation computer manufacturer. We’ve worked together through exciting and challenging times. System76 has grown from a tiny basement office, barely making it sometimes, to strong revenue and an ever-growing capability to deliver unique, high quality Ubuntu PC’s.
Partners, Niche and Planet Earth
System76 is a large small company. That is to say, we ship a plenitude of computers but our shipments pale in comparison to the PC market as a whole. That simply means opportunity! Banks, partners and others often ask, “What is your target market?” A friend at Intel once said, “You have an interesting niche.” (Yes, these statements irk me slightly. I consider target markets to be a narrow way of thinking.) System76 has no interest in a niche. When asked about our target market, I like to take queue from Ubuntu. Our target market are “Humans”. Our niche is the personal computer. Our work everyday is to challenge the companies of the 80’s who are selling the majority of today’s computers. Essentially, we’re aiming for planet Earth.
I’m certain we’re not alone. In their own excited reporting style, OMG!Ubuntu! demonstrates the great strength of Open Source Software. If you have a great idea, create it! The power is in the hands of the developer. Throughout Open Source communities, ideas are debated, refined, developed and adopted. All of this energy is directed toward creating a phenomenal operating system. A better OS option, not just a different OS option. This isn’t simply toiling to remain second fiddle. I’m encouraged by the talent and passion of Open Source and Ubuntu developers as well as that of the impressive community that has grown up around the effort. The Linux desktop is racing forward and System76 is proud to play a part.
Tablets, ARM and Fingerprint Readers
Lying on my desk is a 10.1” touchscreen reference tablet. It’s slightly heavier than I’d like due to the Atom CPU, 2 GB of memory, and a 2.5” 250 GB hard drive. Nice performance though. I don’t know if this design will ever be a product. I’ve heard people that I trust (who are Ubuntu aficionados) say that Apple’s iPad changed their life. That the UI is silky. That it’s…. damn if I have to say it… magical. There’s a lot of work ahead of us to create a tablet that evokes the same reaction. We can’t settle for less. This is an emerging market and, as with any emerging market, players will start to position themselves. Let’s not chase anyone to the bottom but rather innovate at the top.
The ARM architecture is driving up performance while maintaining a low power envelope. The combination enables ultra-sleek, fan-less products. There are challenges. Technically, ARM devices require custom kernels for each device. System76 isn’t in the business of developing and maintaining kernels. The Ubuntu and Linaro projects are working to solve the issue by generating a common ARM kernel. Beyond the technical aspects, we have strong and proven relationships with x86 manufacturers who enable System76 to operate efficiently. The ARM ecosystem will be a new beast to tackle. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen and we’re brining in reference boards to experiment with.
Fingerprint readers and biometrics have lagged behind in Linux. In 2008, we started working with the Fprint project to create open source drivers for System76 (and many other MFG’s) laptops. While the driver was completed, integration with GNOME needed love. It’s finally getting there! Thanks to additional driver help from Upek, our FP manufacturer, and the brilliant work of Wolfgang Ullrich, of the Fingerprint GUI project, we’re aiming for complete biometrics support in Ubuntu 11.04.
Proprietary, Open Source and Switchable Graphics
Graphics performance is central to the future of computing. HTML 5, 1080p video, and advanced desktop compositing are only as impressive as the hardware (and software stack) that drive them. So far in 2010, 44% of System76 products shipped with either nVidia or ATI graphics. Our customers regularly express a desire for discrete graphics. I don’t expect that to change.
GPU’s are a contentious area of System76 product line development. We don’t like shipping proprietary code. During the Ubuntu 10.10 cycle, System76 tested the Nouveau open source nVidia driver on 15.6” mainstream laptops. We were impressed by Nouveau’s performance advancement since Ubuntu 10.04. Unfortunately, the lack of power management resulted in a loud laptop with short battery life. Open source graphics drivers are getting close though, at least for the mainstream market.
Both nVidia and ATI have developed technologies that automatically switch between integrated and discrete graphics based on GPU demand. The technology results in improved battery life and on-demand graphics performance. Neither company are supporting Linux hybrid switching in their proprietary drivers. nVidia is aggressively pushing Optimus, their hybrid graphics technology, from the very low end to extremely high end laptops. AMD’s new Fusion family of products integrate the GPU and CPU on a single-die processor that they call an APU. I expect future APU based products to include discrete GPU’s and ATI Switchable Graphics. Hybrid graphics switching is the next wave of laptop technology. For the time being, System76 will manufacturer laptops without hybrid graphics while exploring options to bring the technology to Ubuntu through either proprietary or open source drivers… and lots of help from partners :-).
Our most common request, which we’ve long wanted to fulfill, is shipping internationally. Starting at the end of this month, System76 will begin shipping products to the United Kingdom. We will ship US keyboards and power cords as we don’t stock UK variants yet. We’ll include plug adapters for the power cord.
By starting in one country, with a common language, we can quickly learn and refine our processes to ensure we’re providing a stellar experience. We’re excited to finally start spreading our international wings! Follow us @ http://facebook.com/system76 or http://twitter.com/system76 for the official announcement.
Ubuntu just turned six. System76 just turned five. What a ride! I loaded up an ‘old’ Ubuntu 9.10 disk the other day. 9.10 was released just over a year ago. It looked dated. Ubuntu advances at an astonishing pace. It’s impressive, but where Ubuntu is headed is even better.
I love the personal cloud. Ubuntu One syncs contacts, notes, music, documents… almost everything. I used to carry a laptop from home to the office and back home each day. Now I walk out of the house with a wallet and a phone. The new Ubuntu One Mobile is brilliant. Stream your entire music library to your phone. Sync contacts and, soon, send and sync photos from your phone. I expect we’ll be streaming movies from Ubuntu One to our mobiles soon. The future is streaming and syncing from online repos. The only question is if it’s your personal cloud… or someone else’s (e.g. Netflix and Pandora.)
I criticized Unity in Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition. While I understand and generally agree with Linus Torvalds mantra of release early and release often, I still think it should have incubated until 11.04. With another six months, I’m confident Unity in 11.04 will mark a new age in desktop UI’s. Switching and launching apps in GNOME 2.0 is the one horribly outdated area of the Linux desktop. GNOME 3.0 will address the issues in their unique way. Ubuntu is addressing them in theirs.
I used to dream about creating my own OS (back when I dreamt about doing everything). I wanted futuristic touch UI’s and dramatic desktop browsing. It didn’t matter what it was… it just had to be more exciting than Windows. If I were building my own OS… it would have to be radical. That’s, in part, why I fully support driving for a totally unique experience with Unity. We must take risk to breech markets dominated by monopolies.