System76’s Integrated Open Source Distro

A Rare Find


System76 integrates its open source distro, Pop_OS!, with hardware, giving Linux users a taste of what Windows and macOS users have always enjoyed.

In an earlier issue of Linux Magazine, I wrote about Pop!_OS, the recent distro by System76. At the time, it seemed to me that Pop!_OS’s main feature was the simplest and most effective tiling window manager yet (Figure 1). However, more recently, as I shopped for a new laptop and eventually purchased one from System76, I realized that I was looking at something rare: a commercial distribution that was integrated into the hardware, with utilities designed specifically for System76 computers and keyboards. The only other example of an integrated commercial distro of which I am aware is Purism, a company in the same niche. Intrigued, I asked CEO Carl Richell (Figure 2), Marketing Director Louisa Bisio, and Media Relations Manager Adam Balla for more information. What follows are their collective answers.

Figure 1: The controls for the Pop!_OS tiled window manager.
Figure 2: Carl Richell, Founder and CEO of System76.

Linux Magazine (LM): How did System76 start?

System76 (S76): System76 was founded in Carl’s basement, circa 2005. He wanted to show the world how far Linux and open source software had come by delivering it preinstalled on high-quality computers backed by caring, knowledgeable customer support. Carl felt that making Linux computers that highlight the work of the community would be a great way to introduce the broader public to open source technology and its potential.

LM: Was there a defining moment for System76?

S76: The company has taken a lot of unexpected turns. At the start, the company was focused on building a customer experience with an easy to navigate website, broad product line, pre-sales support, an out-of-the-box Ubuntu experience, and post-sales support.

Beyond our inception, there were two defining moments. First was deciding to bring product design and manufacturing in-house. Previously, similar to how a Linux distro is curated, we curated our hardware products entirely from off-the-shelf components for desktops and through Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) for laptops. While we could deliver a product, there were limitations to how well we could tune our products for the needs of our customers, such as computer cases that came with features that our customers didn’t want, that lacked thermal optimization, and that took more space on the desk than necessary, and looked different from one model to the next. Cohesion was impossible. So we designed our Thelio desktop line starting with three products and in nine months built a factory in Denver to produce them (Figure 3). In-house designed and manufactured laptops are coming next.

Figure 3: System76’s factory in Denver, Colorado.

The second defining moment was the decision to make Pop!_OS. At the time, Ubuntu had decided to drop Unity. That was a natural opening to refine the operating experience we offered our customers. We took the pain points we understood from our customer experiences and polished them away within a couple of releases. A couple of years later, Pop!_OS 20.04 LTS was released and featured auto-tiling, which became the defining feature that set Pop!_OS apart. Our user growth trajectory changed considerably at that moment. Both decisions have laid the groundwork for our next decade as a company.

We’d be remiss not to also mention our work in open firmware. We’re very proud of how far we’ve come reducing the amount of proprietary software in our products from the lowest levels up. It’s a long road but we hope to eventually fully liberate the PC platform.

LM: Computer hardware is an over-saturated market. What distinguishes System76 from other companies in the same niche?

S76: System76 has focused exclusively on creating Linux and open source products, supplying our customers with the latest hardware and support. Eventually, that came to mean building our own operating system, bringing manufacturing to the US, and designing open hardware computers and peripherals internally. Customers can customize their computer, from picking components to allowing them to optimize their workflow within Pop!_OS, to creating custom, swappable Thelio desktop accent colors with unique etchings [on the case]. This approach dovetails into other products as well, including our Launch family of keyboards, for which users can not only choose between a variety of switch options but can also fully customize and remap their keys and backlighting colors. With Pop!_OS, users get a ton of features that were the direct result of customer feedback, including, out-of-the-box disk encryption on shipped hardware, a customizable desktop experience, user-friendly tiling workflows, automatic firmware updates, GPU drivers out-of-the-box, hybrid graphics support, optimized power profiles, and a privacy-first approach that only collects – not stores – minimal OS and hardware data.

LM: What nontechnical matters have contributed to System76’s success?

S76: We believe building and delivering products is only the start of our customer relationship. While we primarily focus on supporting Pop!_OS or Ubuntu, we have a fair amount of customers that run different distributions. We also work with these users to help troubleshoot their issues even though we may not officially support their distribution of choice.

LM: What are the advantages and challenges of building hardware in the United States?

S76: There are significant advantages to manufacturing hardware in the United States. Our mechanical and manufacturing engineers are trained on the machinery in the factory and able to operate each machine to build prototypes. By understanding the factory capabilities, they fully understand the manufacturability of their designs and impact they have on the production team.This enables us to quickly innovate on new designs, production processes, and technologies while also rolling out product improvements far faster than traditional manufacturing.

However, there are challenges. Manufacturing physical products to a high standard requires constant vigilance. A part that is off by a fraction of a millimeter often turns to scrap. Each step in producing parts must be validated so we don’t waste time for the technician further down the line. As challenging as it is, seeing a flat sheet of aluminum transformed into a beautiful desktop is strikingly rewarding.

LM: Are there any restrictions to building Linux machines? What are the technical advantages?

S76: There are no inherent restrictions or limitations producing Linux machines. When we encounter a new component, such as a new audio chip, we request the schematic from the vendor, write a driver for it, and upstream our work. The key technical advantage of producing Linux computers is the inherent nature of open source. Someone has already written a driver for a similar unsupported device that anyone can reference. The open source community’s collective experience empowers everyone to understand how devices work and leverage that understanding to support more hardware. In open firmware, we tend to be blazing the trail, helping as a member of the broader community to demonstrate how to create open firmware for production products.

LM: To what extent are System76 machines open hardware?

S76: Everything System76 designs and engineers is open source. For hardware, that includes the OSHWA certified Thelio desktop cases, Thelio Io daughter PCB [printed circuit board], and the Launch keyboard line including the case and PCB. For coreboot, the proprietary Intel FSP binary is necessary for initialization. Even with that proprietary blob, there is far more open source code running devices thanks to coreboot.

Coreboot alone is not open firmware however. While it initializes hardware and provides features like suspend, there are embedded controllers (ECs) on mainboards that have a more significant impact on the performance and feel of laptops and desktops. The EC controls battery charge rates, CPU frequencies, fan and thermal control, keyboard mapping, and hotkeys. System76 Open Firmware is a separate project that completes the open firmware picture in our products by providing Coreboot, EDK2, and open source EC firmware. We also use the latest proprietary NVIDIA drivers available to give Pop!_OS users the fastest, most up-to-date experience while on NVIDIA GPUs. While we’d love to see open source drivers from NVIDIA, there’s little indication that it will happen soon.

LM: Why Pop!_OS, a tiling desktop, when there are already so many?

S76: Our design philosophy is to make advanced computing techniques and workflows easily approachable so users of any level can take advantage of them. Our technical support department constantly hears about tiling window managers from customers. Customers were receiving our products and installing i3 or Sway. Both are awesome projects, but there’s something wrong if we ship a laptop or desktop to a customer and they have to install a different desktop or operating system for a feature they need. It was obvious we needed to incorporate auto-tiling into Pop!_OS. As a hardware manufacturer, we require the latest hardware support which we’ve found to be valuable to non-System76 Pop!_OS users as well .

LM: What other hardware might System76 offer in the future?

S76: We are in the research and development process of designing our own in-house laptop. We’ll eventually refresh our Meerkat mini desktop with a new Thelio-style aesthetic. That project will start sometime after our first in-house laptops start shipping. [In addition,] Launch keyboards and the System76 Keyboard Configurator work on macOS and Windows! We’ve also prepared ISO layouts for most Launch models but don’t have a time frame for release.

LM: What are you willing to say at this point about the company’s future directions?

S76: We’re developing COSMIC DE – a desktop environment written in Rust – as well as a prototype for an open hardware laptop manufactured in-house. Finally, Nebula, a line of computer cases based on Thelio desktops will be arriving in the coming months.

The Evolution of Distros

What makes this integrated distribution worth noting is the balance that is struck between open source in business and the community. Using Linux has always been a piecemeal process, with users needing to do their own research, and locate others who share their problems. With hardware and software coming from the same source – what business calls vertical integration – distributions like System76/Pop!_OS offer Linux users their first experiences with what Windows and macOS users have always enjoyed – to say nothing of the closest they can currently get to open hardware. Could Linux be finally becoming mainstream at last?

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