Ubuntu + Dell = The Ultimate Ultraportable?

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It's been a pretty incredible year for open source on the desktop.

Dell has started selling some of its PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed, which means that even non-technical users can acquire a low-cost, powerful open source system without needing to worry about installation and handling drivers and suchlike.

The arrival of the Asus Eee PC, which created a new class of ultraportables that routinely run GNU/Linux – and which run Windows Vista not at all – has brought GNU/Linux to attention of millions of people who might otherwise never have heard the phrase (even the Sun newspaper has been writing about it without further explanation).

Meanwhile, Ubuntu has been going from strength-to-strength on the desktop, as it hones and polishes its offering to match and perhaps soon to surpass Windows, with Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth calling on developers to aim for the Mac next.

Imagine, then, the impact of a low-cost Dell ultraportable running Ubuntu. It's coming:

Dell's much-anticipated subnotebook product, which could be available to consumers by the end of the week, will be offered with Ubuntu 8.04 preinstalled. The little laptop is called the Inspiron 910 and it could displace the venerable Asus Eee PC as the dominant Linux-based notebook.

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The specifications also show that the device includes an 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, up to 1GB of RAM, and an 8.9" screen with support for a resolution of 1024x600. It will also include a built-in camera, solid-state drives ranging between 4GB and 16GB, a VGA port, a media card reader, WiFi, and 3 USB ports. Rumors indicate that the base model could be priced as low as $299.

Assuming Dell doesn't blunder horribly in some way (as it did when trying to trademark “cloud computing”), I think this could be a very significant machine.

At a stroke, it will make such ultraportables respectable and safe, as well as being incredibly good value and useful. That will make the machines compelling for businesses, which will be able to provide many of their staff with the system as a matter of course in the same way they do a mobile phone today. Indeed, for most business users – those that don't crunch spreadsheets all day, or knock out multmedia presentations – a small unit for accessing email and the Web plus jotting down notes is probably all that is required.

It will introduce people to the joys of Ubuntu, which is much more attractive than the current offerings on Asus and other similar machines, well-designed though they are. As a knock-on effect, expect to see Ubuntu appear on many more such ultraportables, perhaps even becoming the de facto standard for such systems running free software. That, in its turn, could help drive sales of Ubuntu-based systems on the desktop.

All-in-alll, then, next year promises to be even more exciting for open source on the desktop than the last.

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