Last week at Linuxworld in San Francisco, Lenovo and Novell announced the first Linux-based ThinkPad mobile workstations, which will run Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED 10). The Thinkpad T60p laptops are based on Intel Centrino Duo mobile technology and are the result of a two-year research and development effort between Lenovo, Intel, and Novell. The systems are not targeted at consumers nor even at hardcore Linux users; they have been designed specifically for electronic engineers engaged in integrated circuit and board-level design who use numeric intensive computer-aided design (CAD) or electronic design automation (EDS) applications in a mobile environment.
Enterprise customers will give configuration preferences and software requirements to Novell, which will build a custom version of SLED 10. Novell will send the operating system to Lenovo which will install it and any other software required onto the laptops and test them to make sure the system works with all the software installed. Lenovo is currently certifying engineering design applications from companies including Cadence, Synopsys, and Mentor Graphics. Novell is now investigating other industries with heavy Linux usage such as automakers and financial services for future solutions opportunities.
Until now, to install Linux on a notebook, the user had to purchase a laptop with Microsoft installed, uninstall Microsoft, and then install the preferred Linux distribution. One of the things Lenovo has offered mainstream users is the ability to purchase the T60p laptops with empty hard drives and the ability to purchase support for SLED 10 from Novell for $50 a year. This allows mainstream users a chance to get Linux desktops without having to pay Microsoft, and it allows Lenovo to offer maximum flexibility to customers with minimal risk to themselves.
Because the Linux market is fragmented by geography and industry, it is difficult for hardware vendors to select a distribution on which to standardize. It's also difficult to justify the expense of taking on another operating system if the market share numbers do not easily pan out, which Linux on workstations and desktops has yet to do. Because Intel has helped in development and is one of the key initial customers for this project, Lenovo and Novell can treat this as a pilot program that will help them develop products designed for target markets. A not insignificant portion of the portable market was once handled this way until vendors went to mass-market portables. It may be that for Linux, this model of customized systems will become the predominant model with vendors providing operating systems integrated with applications to markets with large enough purchase volumes.
For design engineers, this announcement provides a couple of new opportunities. First, it brings much of the power of workstations to the mobile environment, allowing designers to unchain themselves from desktop systems. On the other hand, it also allows them to have one system for both design applications and for normal office tasks such as email and other corporate applications. These new laptops are designed to be slim but powerful portable workstations that engineers can use in multiple environments. If Lenovo and Novell can get this right and Intel can exploit the capabilities these systems offer, then the success can be replicated in more industries as more user groups begin to exploit the benefits of customized systems for their application environments.