Inside Dell’s ‘BlackTop’ laptop Linux OS

Dell may be one of Microsoft’s largest customers but the hardware heavyweight has decided that Windows simply isn’t good enough for today’s fast-paced and ‘instant on’ world.

This doesn’t mean that Dell is ditching Windows as its OS of choice – however the company has cooked up its own Linux system-on-a-chip module that co-exists with Windows while at the same time shouldering the monolithic OS to one side.

The aim is to give laptops the same fast functionality as a BlackBerry when it comes to tasks such as email which is how the project got its development codename of ‘BlackTop’ – a portmanteau of BlackBerry and laptop. At Dell’s business notebook launch in New Dehli the company previewed the technology (which now goes by the marketing-friendly name of Latitude ON) which is being baked into its new Latitude business notebooks.

Latitude ON is a similar approach to pre-boot environments such as SplashTop but far more sophisticated. For starters the entire package is built into a stand-alone module containing a low-power ARM processor and flash memory so that it runs independently of the notebook’s hard drive or main processor.

Think of it as a tiny PC sitting inside your PC. In this mode the laptop’s battery life stretches from hours into days – and considering the richness and variety of online applications you could go all day without starting Windows.

“This is a Dell-developed operating environment that is sub-processor” explained Dell CEO Michael Dell. “It uses all of the major system ingredients that you’d want for something like this – it gives you the keyboard the screen it’s got control of the radio. We see this as another mode of the computer.”

The OS itself is based on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 and the software bundle includes a Firefox-derived browser plus a customised email diary and contacts organiser as well as drivers for the notebook’s wireless and 3G HSDPA radios. Viewers for Office documents and PDF are also included.

However customers can’t add their own applications to the flash memory – and even if they could those apps would need to be written for the ARM microarchitecture rather than x86. But Dell has plans to continue developing the Latitude ON suite with future additions such as an instant messaging client and browser support for Flash and Java to be added.

The first appearance of Latitude ON will be in a basic ‘reader’ mode which boots into a hard drive partition containing the OS and apps. This reads the notebook’s cached Outlook data and loads a subset of the data – such as the 100 most recent emails and the next 14 days of appointments –into the Linux organiser program.

In November Dell will roll out the full Latitude ON system which will be built into the Latitude notebooks and also offered as a low-cost mini-PCI upgrade to models issued with the reader.

That full version permits no access to local hard drive – it will download data only via wireless connection to an Exchange server or a POP3/IMAP account. This is intended as a security feature in keeping with the corporate focus of the Latitude notebooks working under the assumption that most businesses run Exchange in their back office.

David Flynn travelled to New Delhi India as a guest of Dell.