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When you’re a company that sells computers and your operating system vendor announces that it’s shaking things up, that’s cause for concern. You can either go along for the ride or take a different approach.
Left in this position, System76 saw an opportunity to take more control over the experience it ships to customers: rather than continuing to sell Linux-powered PCs running Ubuntu, it would provide its own Linux operating system known as Pop!_OS.
I own a System76 Lemur laptop that I purchased a year or so ago. Since I wiped Ubuntu off the machine as soon as it booted up, I was pretty apathetic about the news. Still, I had mixed thoughts. Why take on the burden with such a small company? Why add more options when there are already hundreds of Linux operating systems to choose from?
Then I listened to Ryan Sipes of System76 explain the company’s rationale. And you know what? It makes sense.
So I decided to give the Pop!_OS alpha a try. Long story short, I like what I see.
What’s Using Pop!_OS Currently Like?
When I loaded up the Pop!_OS ISO using GNOME Boxes, the virtual environment immediately detected my screen resolution. No other ISO has done this for me. What was immediately apparent was that Pop!_OS was largely a themed version of Ubuntu GNOME. To understand how the interface works, you only have to familiarize yourself with GNOME.
I still wanted to try Pop!_OS running natively, so I did a full install. There were no hiccups. Rather than set up your user accounts in the system installer, a setup session launches the first time you use the computer. While most of what’s seen here comes from Canonical and GNOME, this is part of the experience where System76 has invested some of its own work.
The ISO comes with a range of pre-installed software that power users may be more inclined to want. This isn’t too surprising considering System76 markets its PCs as tools for makers and creators.
GNOME Tweak Tool, dconf editor, and GNOME’s Remote Desktop are all packed in. You also get Firefox and most of the LibreOffice suite. Then there are games such as solitaire, mines, and Mahjong. GNOME Software is the default app store.
As usual, I removed a solid chunk of the pre-installed software. I use only a handful of apps on a day-to-day basis, and I don’t want unused apps cluttering my app drawer.
Though in alpha, Pop!_OS has provided a solid experience. In my week spent with Pop!_OS, I’ve only encountered one crash, which isn’t that uncommon even in stable versions of desktop operating systems. That said, it’s worth repeating that System76 hasn’t made all that many changes to Ubuntu GNOME. That’s a stable foundation to build on, making it highly likely that Pop!_OS will be reliable when it launches. The developers are aiming for October.
I don’t have much else to say about the experience, as there isn’t yet much new to see. But I’ve seen enough to convince me that creating Pop!_OS is not a mistake. Here are some of the reasons why I think what System76 is doing is a great idea.
System76 Will Produce the Hardware and Software
In the desktop PC market, this is rare. It’s not some limitation of the Linux ecosystem — Windows users have only recently had the option to buy a computer directly from Microsoft. When a company supports both the hardware and the software, it’s easier to tackle bugs. They can also better optimize code to take advance of a particular system configuration. This has long been a selling point for Apple PCs and phones.
System76 will soon offer a similar experience. No, the company isn’t creating the vast majority of the code that goes into the Pop!_OS. But it will put those finishing touches that matter. Users can expect smoother graphics and sound when there’s a company invested in making sure Pop!_OS works on their specific setup. By making its own Linux operating system, System76 is also less dependent on Canonical to incorporate fixes.
System76 Isn’t Locking Things Down
In the Android world, most of the major handset manufacturers have their own interface. Google has the Google Now Launcher. Samsung has TouchWiz. HTC has Sense. There’s LG UX and Huawei’s EMUI. While Android may be open source, every single one of these interfaces is closed.
In contrast, System76 created its Pop theme out of the existing open source Adapta GTK theme and Papirus icons. The company then shared the relatively minor tweaks it made back to the community. Pop!_OS itself is an open project that anyone can install regardless of whether they’re using System76 hardware.
I don’t want to gloss over this. A company is creating a differentiated software experience without any restrictions. You don’t have to pay for Pop!_OS. You don’t even have to buy a System76 computer. All of its own tweaks and creations are contributed back to the broader community. This is exactly the way we want to see a company utilize open source code.
System76 Is Cooperating With Upstream
Pop!_OS uses the same installer as Ubuntu, but System76 made some changes. Rather than keep these tweaks to itself, it submitted them back to the program’s developers. There’s a decent chance the functionality will now appear in future versions of Ubuntu.
Another is choosing an email client that integrates with GNOME Online Accounts and making it provide the kind of experience we’ve come to expect from phones. The company is hesitant to take on the task of maintaining an email client, but if it does fix bugs in software such as Geary, those changes would likely go out to other Linux operating systems as well.
System76 Is Invested in Desktop Linux
Many people have pondered whether a company can make a business out of selling or supporting desktop Linux. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, was born to provide an experience that could compete with commercial operating systems. But Canonical never really made money off the desktop. After shipping a largely unchanged version of its Unity interface for several years, Canonical abandoned the project and is now shifting its focus away from the desktop.
System76 has been selling PCs that come with Ubuntu for over a decade. The company is profitable, and it has a vested interest in desktop Linux — arguably more than Canonical. People are already buying System76 machines to get hardware that comes pre-installed with Linux. If the desktop experience sucks, people can go elsewhere. The machines themselves aren’t bad, but it’s not like they’re better than what the rest of the computer industry offers, or cheaper. System76 needs desktop Linux to thrive.
System76 Creates Linux Products for Regular People
Linux is a commercial behemoth. When you consider that Linux is used to power servers, ATMs, giant telescopes, and the International Space Station, it’s clear that a lot of money is invested in Linux. Companies such as Red Hat and SUSE make big dollars developing and selling versions of Linux.
But those products aren’t meant for at home use. They’re for enterprise and academia. Many of the people using Linux in that environment aren’t running it on their computers at home. When it comes to the hearts and minds of your average person, Linux isn’t even in the conversation.
System76 is one of the few companies out there making Linux products you can use on your couch. They’ve long made hardware, and now they’re trying to create a recognizable interface that ties to their brand. Among people who don’t know or care to learn about the nuances of the Linux ecosystem, this can make the entire operating system feel more approachable.
Will Pop!_OS Pay Off?
Only time will tell. This move could build brand awareness for System76, increasing sales. Or it could have little effect at all, since many customers know how to install their own Linux operating system and simply want a computer they know won’t give them any problems. We might see other companies follow suit, or System76 may end up in its own niche.
What do you think? Should more companies take System76’s approach? Would that be chaos? Are you ambivalent either way? Share your comments below!
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