Free software needs hardware entrepreneurs

Luis Villa:

I’m boggled that Fedora, OpenSuse, and Ubuntu, all of whom have open or semi-open build systems now, are not actively seeking out Emperor and companies like Emperor, and helping them ship distros that are as close to upstream- and hence most supportable- for everyone. Obviously it is in RH, Canonical, and Novell’s interests to actively pursue Big Enterprise Fish like HP and Dell. But I’m really surprised that the communities around these distros haven’t sought out the smaller, and potentially growing, companies that are offering computers with Linux pre-installed.

Sounds exactly right to me. I’ve been thinking something similar for awhile, but as the post title suggests, focused on hardware vendors. Tons of them compete to sell Linux servers at the very low and very high ends and everything inbetween, but if you want a pre-installed Linux laptop you need to pay a hefty premium for slightly out of date hardware from someone like Emperor Linux. It seems like there’s an opportunity for a hardware vendor to sell a line of Linux laptops that aren’t merely repurposed Windows machines. It has seemed like this for a something like a decade though, and as far as I know HP and a couple others have only tentatively and temporarily offered a few lame configurations.

So I’d like to see a hardware startup (or division of an existing company) sell a line of laptops designed for Linux, where everything “just works” just as it does on Macs, and for the same reasons — limited set of hardware to support, work on the software until it “just works” on that hardware. There’s probably even some opportunity for Apple-like proprietary control over some aspects of the hardware. Which reminds me, what legal barriers, if any, would someone who wants to manufacture the OLPC design face? There is discussion of a commercial subsidiary for the project:

The idea is that a commercial subsidiary could manufacture and sell a variation of the OLPC in the developed world. These units would be marked up so that there would be a significant profit which can be plowed into providing more units in countries who cannot afford the full cost of one million machines.

The discussions around this have talked about a retail price of 3× the cost price of the units.

In any case Villa is right, distributions should be jumping to support hardware vendors, both the mundane and innovative sorts. Which Red Hat/Fedora is doing in the case of OLPC.

Update 20060926: In comments below Villa points out system76, which approaches what I want, excpet that their prices are mediocre and they don’t offer high resolution displays, which I will never do without again. David points out, which looks like reasonable independent reporting on OLPC. I asked on the OLPC wiki about other manufacturers’ use of the design.

3 Responses

  1. Luis says:

    I had avoided that, and stuck to resale, because, well, hardware is hard :) To a certain extent, though, this is what does. If they’d sold a lightweight tablet, I’d almost definitely have bought from them instead. I’ll probably buy my next desktop from them as well (though I have no plans to do that any time in the near future.)

  2. David says:

    Speaking at last week’s AMD Global Vision conference, Nicholas Negroponte was quoted as saying that OLPC’s laptops will be commercially available on ebay for around $450:

    There’s no mention of whether the commercial version will be distinguishable in anyway from the charitably distributed one, so we can assume they will run linux. They won’t be that keenly priced though, so its arguable as to whether the product will make a dent in the west.

    As for harware manufacturers outside the west, a few offer linux already. A South African manufacturer, Sahara, used to do it, although I can’t seem to find any linux PCs on their site just now. There are some Brazillian and Argentinian manufacturers who offer Linux too – I came across a few examples a while back when I was looking into the sort of market Microsoft was targeting with their FlexGo PAYG product.

  3. Wes Felter says:

    OLPC doesn’t even own their design (AFAIK it is co-owned by them and Quanta), so they won’t be open-sourcing it. My understanding is that the parts (with the exception of the DCON and the LCD) are off-the-shelf and connected in more-or-less obvious ways, so you could probably hire a manufacturer to design/build something that is 90% similar to an OLPC and runs the OLPC software stack.

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