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Exclusive Interview With System 76 CEO Carl Richell

System 76 is one of the leading companies which offer Ubuntu as the pre-installed operating system on their PCs. The arrival of Ubuntu 11.04 has given Linux a better chance in the desktop segment. Linux is already leading the world, it’s everywhere – eBook readers, embedded systems, servers, mobile phones. The only domain remaining to be conquered is desktop. What Android has done in the mobile segment, Ubuntu can do in desktop space . What we need is companies like System76 to push Linux on the desktop. We interviewed Carl Richell, the CEO of System 76, to understand the future plans of System 76.

Muktware: What is System 76? Can you tell us something about how and when you conceptualized the company and what was the driving force behind it?
Carl Richell:
We started discussing System76 back in 2003 but not seriously until 2005. We felt that GNU/Linux had come a long way and deserved an OEM building high quality pc’s backed by dedicated support.

There was also this newfangled distro called Ubuntu. It clearly had traction. There was already a great community and a unique and attractive business model behind it. Shortly thereafter, we shipped our first laptops and desktop with Ubuntu 5.10 Breezy Badger.

Carl Richell, CEO, System 76Muktware: Can you tell us something more about the business model of System 76 and its presence around the globe?
Carl Richell:
We’re a direct online PC manufacturer/retailer. Each order is custom assembled, loaded, and quality tested. We practice just-in-time production strategy to both maintain efficiency and remain on the edge of the latest hardware technology. We have one corporate office in Denver, CO and we utilize two distribution facilities which are also in the US. Currently, we ship our products to Canada, the United Kingdom and the US. We’re planning to expand our shipping footprint to more countries later this year.

Muktware: Who are your clients – individual customers, businesses or government?
Carl Richell:
Our customers and target market are humans :-). Our sales data doesn’t demonstrate a strong vertical niche but rather evenly distributed sales amongst consumers, businesses, and government.

Muktware: Can you tell us something about some major installations?
Carl Richell:
Most large installations are schools. It’s particularly satisfying deploying Ubuntu laptops and desktops in schools. I know we’re handing that student technology without any constraints to their curiosity and creativity.

Muktware: Why should a customer buy a System 76 machine and not Dell or HP, what USP do you have other than out of box support for Ubuntu?
Carl Richell:
Why would someone want a Dell or HP pc if they want Ubuntu? Buying a PC from System76 is far different than dealing with other OEM’s. Everyone at System76 uses Ubuntu everyday… it’s all we do. We work with and contribute to upstream projects to ensure components work out of the box. We test thoroughly and when there’s a bug, we fix it quickly. Our systems are configured for Ubuntu at the firmware level. Ubuntu has wonderful hardware support out of the box. We take it to the next level.

Muktware: Many think that System 76 along with Ubuntu can match Apple/Mac as everything seems to works out of the box. When we look at System 76 who is it competing with?
Carl Richell:
We are competing with Apple, HP, Dell, Microsoft. It’s stiff and entrenched competition to say the least. We’re driving toward the mainstream by focusing on high quality products and constantly working to get our message out there. We didn’t choose Ubuntu only because it’s a popular GNU/Linux flavor. We chose it because it’s a better choice than Windows and Mac OS X.

Muktware: Do you just assemble PCs running Ubuntu or is there some R&D involved to enhance user experience? What layer do you add to Ubuntu?
Carl Richell:
When we started out we were obviously very small and forced to take what hardware we could get. Things have changed significantly since then. We have strong relationships with upstream manufacturers and we leverage those relationships to build PC’s that are finely tuned to Ubuntu. We don’t go it alone by any means.

There are numerous moving parts in the PC industry and we depend on the exceptional work of the Ubuntu Hardware Enablement Team and many others. The System76 Gazelle Pro and Serval Pro products are possible due to Intel’s Sandy Bridge code contribution and Ubuntu devs backporting the contribution to Maverick.

There are occasions where we need to fill gaps to enhance our users experience. Biometrics are a good example. Generally, if we have an itch to scratch, there’s an upstream project that’s working on it. We find that project and contribute hardware and our components manufacturer relationships to achieve mutual goals.

Muktware: Why did you pick Ubuntu?
Carl Richell:
The first time I tried Ubuntu I threw the disc away. I couldn’t su to root. Funny to think back on that now. I tried it again, read forums and the wiki, dove deeper in and recognized that Ubuntu was a better way of coalescing a Linux desktop out of the myriad of Open Source Software out there. I also appreciated the business model. No separate for-cost “editions”. I thought it could work.

Muktware: Users use PC for software/applications — to get things done. What challenge do you see for System 76 when it comes to the availability of needed software packages for GNU/Linux – particularly Ubuntu?
Carl Richell:
Very, very little – if any. Ubuntu is an enormously productive tool. There are corner cases but they’re just that – corner cases. Additionally, I would argue that price itself decreases the relative productivity capability of other operating systems.

Muktware: I have seen some users asking for proprietary software like Photoshop on Ubuntu. Doesn’t it defy the entire purpose of Free Software/ Open Source – to fight the close source? If you can see or modify the code, why use it? What is your opinion about it?
Carl Richell:
Some professions have specific needs. I can’t argue that having Photoshop available on Ubuntu would be bad. Quite the contrary, Photoshop would add value to the platform and broaden our customer base. It’s certainly not necessary for most computer users. For our purposes, GIMP and Inkscape are excellent applications that fulfill System76’s graphics creation and manipulation needs.

Muktware: Do you work closely with Canonical/Ubuntu community? If yes, what is the level of association?
Carl Richell:
Canonical and the Ubuntu community are integral parts System76. It’s hard to image how we would exist without either of them.

Technically we’re Ubuntu Silver Partners and Ubuntu Solution Providers. We offer Canonical support contracts with our servers and Canonical provides OEM support to System76.

We work with the Ubuntu community to help promote events. We often print free flyers or contribute hardware when we can. With the help of LoCo’s we provide free ‘Powered by Ubuntu’ stickers in 24 countries. The community is what makes Ubuntu and Open Source Software powerful. We’re proud to be a part of it.

Muktware: How do you see Ubuntu’s switch to Unity as it will be a new interface and users like status quo?
Carl Richell:
Unity fundamentally changes Ubuntu and was a necessary step in its evolution. Ubuntu is no longer another GNU/Linux distribution, but rather a platform for delivering unique and engaging applications to users. It will take time before the full fruit of Unity’s labor is realized. Once it is, Ubuntu will change the desktop in dramatic ways.

Muktware: Do you offer other distros as well?
Carl Richell:
Just Ubuntu.

Muktware: What kind of support do you offer to your customers?
Carl Richell:
We offer email, phone, and forum support to our users.

Muktware: What do you say about Ubuntu missing the tablet bus. Do you have any plans for Ubuntu tablets?
Carl Richell:
I’d say everyone missed the tablet bus, save for one company. I believe in doing it right or not at all. System76 will develop a tablet when the Ubuntu pieces are perfect.

We are looking for aspiring bloggers and journalists for The Mukt. If you are interested, apply now!

Muktware: What is your road-map for 2011?
Carl Richell:
A tightly held secret :-).

Slideshow Image:
Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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