Dell releases ‘Latitude ON’ alternative Linux OS for laptops

Just over one year ago APC presented the world’s first look at Dell’s auxiliary laptop OS named Latitude ON.

Designed as a stand-alone OS built around a Linux kernel and powered by its own ARM chip Latitude ON stretches the life of a notebook’s battery from hours to days by sidestepping Windows entirely.

Codenamed ‘Blacktop’ because it aimed to give laptops the same fast functionality as a BlackBerry when it comes to tasks such as email (‘Blacktop’ is of course a portmanteau of ‘BlackBerry’ and ‘laptop’) today sees the full version of Latitude ON makes its debut.

It’s loaded onto the new Latitude Z and available as an optional $249 upgrade to the Latitude E4200and E4300 notebooks.

Latitude ON differs from other pre-boot environments such as Splashtop because it’s a tiny SoC (System on Chip) computer in its own right – although Dell calls it a ‘sub-processor and sub-operating system’.

The OS which is based on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 and accompanied by a Firefox-derived browser plus a customised email diary and contacts organiser resides in a flash memory chip.

(Dell says it will release the code to Latitude ON as required under the General Public License for open-source software.)

That chip is fitted onto a mini-PCI board alongside an ARM processor with integrated 802.11bg wireless all in the size of a stick of gum. This stand-alone module runs independently of the notebook’s hard drive or main processor.

That tiny slab of flash memory includes bespoke Linux drivers for the screen keyboard trackpad and the 3G mobile broadband card available in select Latitude notebooks as an option.

The clean UI launches into an inbox which works with Exchange 2003 Novel Groupwise POP and IMPAP servers – Dell says other corporate platforms including Exchange 2007 will be added in the neat future and available as a firmware update.

A basic ‘reader’ version of Latitude ON is already baked into the Latitude E4200 and E4300 notebooks which provides the ability to read emails and browse the Web but the new system adds replies and new emails. Users can also read Office and PDF document attachments.

In addition to the calendar and contacts modules which also sync with Exchange the browser comes with an inbuilt Citrix client for accessing desktop applications over a VPN. Of course it can also be used to run conventional online apps such as Google Docs.

The upshot of all this is that Latitude ON can do a hell of a lot for which you’d usually need to run Windows. The advantage is less about its ‘instant on’ launch time than the fact that the laptop’s battery can run for days.

Dell will also market Latitude ON as a ‘spare tyre’ for its laptops. In the event that the hard disk fails or the Windows installation suffers a fatal and unrecoverable error users can continue to work in the Latitude ON environment.