Open Source

Will Pop!_ OS strengthen or harm System76?

System76 has decided to build their own operating system called Pop!_ OS. Jack Wallen questions this move and posits a solution for a problem they might not know they'll encounter.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Once Ubuntu announced they would be leaving behind Unity and picking up GNOME as their default desktop, I assumed it would start some form of chain reaction throughout the Linux landscape. What I didn't see coming, however, was System76 announcing they were shifting away from Ubuntu to create their own Linux distribution. When word came to my inbox, I was immediately thrilled about the possibilities. Knowing how well the company handles hardware (and its integration with Ubuntu has clearly shown), I assumed a distribution created in-house would be something really special.

That something special is called Pop!_ OS and will, in the future, be shipping as the default operating system on System76 hardware. Before I managed to get my hands on the alpha, I was told Pop!_ OS was to be a platform for creators. Now, being of the artistic bent, I assumed they meant all types of creators (writers, graphic artists, filmmakers, musicians, programmers, etc.). I'd imagined a distribution that includes all sorts of tools to help artists and programmers create their own flavor of magic.

Turns out, System76's definition of creator is far more limited than what my mind had conjured. The term creator gets quickly narrowed by this quick blurb on Pop!_ OS site:

Pop!_OS is designed for people who use their computer to create; whether it's complicated, professional-grade software and products, sophisticated 3D models, computer science in academia, or makers working on their latest invention.

Preaching to the choir

Here's where my issue with this comes to the fore. This falls very much in line with what so many companies already do—preach to the choir. Programmers and academia already know about Linux and use it. System76, being one of the more forward-thinking and popular manufacturers of Linux-loaded hardware, should be thinking beyond the already converted to create a platform that can do what other Linux platforms struggle with—things like video and audio.

I understand that programmers are most likely their bread and butter, but any current distribution can very quickly be tweaked to include everything a programmer would need to do their work. Try that with other types of "creating" tools and you might find yourself struggling. Take, for instance, video editing. Your first instinct might be to install the likes of OpenShot video editor, only to find what was once a solid solution, broken and sadly limited. LightWorks is great, if you have a supporting video card and the time to always convert your video files with Handbrake so the software can actually use your clips. And considering any "creator" is going to also have to create promotional material for their creation, it would make sense (at least to me) to include the tools for this task.

Light on the tools

Speaking of tools, upon installing Pop!_ OS, what I found was a Ubuntu-derived distribution, using a System76-themed GNOME desktop, and not much more. Yes, the distribution includes the usual tools found on a default Ubuntu desktop (LibreOffice, Firefox, Rhythmbox, Music, Photos, Maps, etc. But I found very little beyond that to separate Pop!_ OS from the standard distribution.

Now, I must point out, this is an alpha release, so hopefully System76 has bigger plans for their home-grown distribution. But, as it stands, Pop!_ OS doesn't know what it wants to be. And with this, I come back (yet again) to the word creator. It is challenging to strip away the idea of "artist" when considering "creator."

Is Pop!_ OS going to be a System76-specific distribution that will empower programmers? If so, what about those within their user-base who have never written a line of code in their lives (and have no plan to)? Will they feel like they're getting an operating system that goes above their heads and, as a result, turn away from System76? I have to think that the System76 user-base isn't comprised completely of programmers, members of the scientific academia, 3D modelers, etc. I am not a programmer and work primarily on a System76 Leopard (and love it). Some consumers simply want to buy a piece of hardware for average usage. Some users might want to fire up the GIMP (it's not installed out of the box) and create some groovy graphics.

The kudos

I will say this: For an alpha release, Pop!_ OS is solid. Of course it is, it's built on Ubuntu and makes use of GNOME for the desktop interface (Figure A). That's a one-two punch guaranteed to bring about a reliable experience. Truth be told, as far as I can tell, the current state of Pop!_ OS is little more than Ubuntu 17.10 with a System76 theme and build-essential installed.

Figure A

Figure A

Pop!_ OS showing off the GNOME Dash.

That System76 chose to follow in the footsteps of Ubuntu was smart—as you won't find a more reliable, stable, and slick desktop than GNOME. And Ubuntu underneath means that all the things will continue to just work.

My suggestion

And yet again, I'm back to "creator". After mulling this over a bit, I think I have the solution for System76, one they should be able to pull off without much extra work. When a consumer goes to purchase a piece of System76 hardware, there would be a choice during purchase time that asks:

What kind of creator are you?

Possible answers could include:

  • Programmer
  • Graphic artist
  • Filmmaker
  • Audio engineer
  • Musician
  • Photographer
  • General user

Based on the consumer's choice, System76 would then install the version of Pop!_ OS best suited for their tasks. This way, System76 isn't leaving out anyone, nor do they run the risk of the general public thinking their hardware is only for programmers and scientists or shipping a distribution with way too much crammed inside.

Is this the right move?

My initial reaction to this was "good for System76." But after careful thinking, questions started to arise. The company has spent so much time and effort on being branded as a Ubuntu shop. Their hardware has always worked with Ubuntu they gave back to the community. I have to wonder how (and if) using their own in-house distribution will change this. And does it have the added risk of watering down their brand?

Personally, I believe Pop!_ OS could very likely strengthen the System76 brand, should they market it wisely. If they go the route that the operating system shipping with their hardware is geared specifically toward developers, they'll lose precious audience. Should they opt to reconsider that the term "creators" should cover a wide spectrum of users, then they could have something incredibly special on their hands (something no other manufacturer of any type of hardware can offer).

Of course, I am a bit biased here—being of the artistic bent.

What do you think? Will Pop!_ OS help or hurt what System76 has done a remarkable job building?

Also see

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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