Project Sputnik, Dell's innovative initiative for building a high-end, open source laptop, launched a week ago with the release of an XPS 13 "Developer Edition" laptop powered by Ubuntu Linux. But Dell's far from done on this front, according to Barton George, the brain behind the project. In an interview, he explained where Project Sputnik -- and Dell's open source channel strategy more broadly--might be headed next. Read on for what he had to say.

The Sputnik laptop released last week was the product of an effort that began about six months ago, when George floated the concept of creating a laptop tailored for programmers to the Dell Innovation Program. Sputnik was the inaugural project for the Innovation Program, which Dell established earlier this year to help inspire innovative product ideas from company employees.

The form taken by Project Sputnik since it moved beyond the conceptual stages was informed by many members of the open source community, whose feedback Dell solicited throughout the product development process. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, also played an important role in perfecting driver support for the XPS 13, according to George. And it was Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, he added, who first suggested that the project should target programmers working on cloud applications specifically.

Dell took Shuttleworth's idea to heart by integrating open source cloud development and deployment tools, such as Juju, into the Sputnik laptop. Meanwhile, with assistance from third-party programmers, Dell is sponsoring ongoing development of open source resources for Sputnik users--namely a "cloud launcher" for easily simulating cloud environments on the local computer, and a profile tool for rolling out development environments and tool chains quickly. The code for both of these Sputnik sub-projects is freely available online.

The Future of Sputnik

For the immediate future, according to George, Dell plans to continue its work on the development tools discussed above--an effort which, it's worth noting, represents a very new sort of endeavor for an OEM that has never been heavily involved at all in the software business. But Dell's lack of a large existing portfolio of proprietary software, George pointed out, positions the company particularly well to contribute to open source development without jeopardizing any of its other investments.

Meanwhile, beyond bringing the cloud launcher and profile tools to perfection, George also envisions expanding Project Sputnik's focus to other hardware platforms. Although he was keen to emphasize that Dell currently can't make any promises, he suggested that it might work in the future toward releasing a more "beasty" Ubuntu-powered laptop for developers. The elegant and highly mobile XPS 13, he explained, meets the needs of some developers, but for those who would prefer even more powerful hardware, Project Sputnik potentially could release a second Ubuntu laptop for the programming crowd.

And what can we expect next from the Dell Innovation Program? A second project conceived in the same vein as Sputnik is already in the works, according to Dell representatives, and should be announced publicly soon. It won't be another open source laptop, but it will, I was told, involve cloud computing and business analytics. We'll stay tuned for further updates on that front as Dell continues to test new waters through its Innovation initiative.

Readers should also stay tuned for more information on Dell's open source plans beyond Sputnik, another topic that George touched on and which we'll discuss in a future post.