Open Source

Phase 3 for System76 brings hardware design and construction in-house

System76 has been selling Linux-installed machines for over 10 years. They are about to step into the next phase of their existence, which could mean big success for the company.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Unless you've managed to locate a time machine and travel back to a future where real hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers exist you probably already know about System76. On the off-chance you aren't in the know, let me give you the "previously on..." speil:

System76 is one of the biggest sellers of Linux preinstalled laptops and desktops in America. The company was founded by Carl Richell and Erik Fetzer in 2003 to simply sell computers with the Linux operating system installed. It wasn't until 2005 that the dream would come to fruition; after finally settling on a distribution, they shipped their first system with Ubuntu 5.10 installed.

I have to confess to being a big fan of the company. I've been using a Leopard Extreme as my primary desktop for about four years now and it has performed beautifully. But even with my fondness of the company and their selling outstanding products, there's always been that one little unspoken truth about what System76 does.

They sell rebranded, third-party hardware.

Don't get me wrong, the company does a brilliant job with the rebranding; and they aren't simply slapping a logo on the machines, installing Ubuntu, and calling it a win. In fact, System76 has, for years, gone out of their way to ensure everything works out of the box and that the experience for the consumer is tops. Which it is.

But that rebranding was always a bit of a sticking point for me and many others. Finally, System76 is planning on doing something about it.

In a recent blog post, Carl Richell wrote to announce the company was about to shift into what he called Phase 3. What is this mysterious phase? System76 is moving product design and manufacturing in-house. That's right, the end of rebranding is on the horizon for System76. Sure, they'll most likely still rely on third-party components, (Why would any company want to build their own motherboard, when there are already cost-effective and well-made solutions available?) but the design, construction, build, and branding of their laptops and desktops will soon be done under one roof. This will go a very long way to ensure everything they sell falls in line with their company ethos:

  • Represent the character of System76 (open, warm, friendly, and high-quality)
  • Represent the Open Source community (all of their in-house CAD work will be open source)
  • Ease of serviceability (open it, change it, expand it)
  • Efficient to manufacture

Bigger news for all

This is big news for both System76 and the Linux community. Why? First off, most companies that sell Linux preinstalled machines are shipping rebranded, third-party hardware. Because of this, you might purchase a machine that ships (and works) with the supported OS; but should you want to install your favorite flavor of Linux, you might be out of luck, as one of those internal components might not work with your distribution. With System76 building in-house, they can better control what goes into those machines, which translates to better and wider support for Linux as a whole.

This also will allow System76 a significant amount of flexibility in what they can offer. And because they plan on building an efficient manufacturing process, they should be able to keep the costs down.

But more importantly, this paradigm shift for System76 proves it can be done; that a company can build and sell Linux hardware and do so with a measure of success. System76 was already the go-to company for a lot of people. Read any piece of punditry and you will find someone reference System76 as the place (alongside Dell) to buy Linux-installed laptops, desktops, and servers. Up until now, System76 was simply purchasing someone else's work, making it function with Ubuntu Linux, wrapping it in a pretty package, and selling it.

Now? It's all System76, all the time. With this new phase, System76 will be able to create anything and compete with anyone.

My prediction

If I were to offer up a prediction for this new phase? I would say System76 is poised to become the Apple of Linux (without the proprietary stigma attached). I know that sounds a bit much; after all, Apple seemed to skyrocket out of nowhere (thanks to Steve Jobs, the iMac, and the iPod). All it took for Apple was a shift in how things were done and what was produced.

Sound familiar?

If System76 does this right, they'll create a Linux-based product that everyone will want (starting with the Linux community, of course) and will enjoy an exponential rise in demand. You might think it is ludicrous to place a small Linux-only company on the same playing field as the mighty Apple, but stranger things have happened. With System76 doing all the right things to this point - and now taking this to the obvious next phase - it is not beyond the realm of the possible that this "little" American company could be on the precipice of greatness.

Give them two or three years and we'll see what products are being shipped out of Denver, Colorado. I'm confident we'll all be very impressed.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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