Posted by: acoss | March 10, 2010

A Talk With Tomek Obirek – Robotnik Computers

Robotnik.com offers a line of budget computers with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled.

Robotnik.com offers a line of budget computers with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed.

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Tomek Obirek, the public and customer relations agent for Robotnik Computers Inc. Robotnik is an independent computer retail and service business in Nova Scotia, located at the Bayer’s Lake industrial park in Halifax. The company was started in 1998 and Obirek remarks that Robotnik’s “claim to fame is to make everyone happy”.

Obirek and I met to discuss, among other things, their pre-installed Linux computers, the Basic Barebones system. This budget system comes with a choice of an Intel processor or an AMD processor, as well as basic hardware components that can be upgraded when ordering. You can either have the system installed with Ubuntu Linux or without an OS. Robotnik specifically developed the system to be compatible with Ubuntu Linux, which Obriek explains was because they found it to be “very friendly, easy to use”

Obirek talked about the customer reaction to the Basic Barebones systems since they began offering them around 4 years ago. He says it has been well received, especially with some businesses. Obirek pointed out that one company had “contact[ed] all the vendors and no one could sell them a box that does Linux. They needed 200 units”. Robotnik was the only company in the area that was able to met their needs with a machine that was specifically developed to run with a Linux installation. He explains further, “We took all the testing out of it, they got a box they could put their own distribution on, we proved the hardware worked with Linux”. He explains that they are not often asked to install Linux on the machines because “a lot of these guys are loading their own software, they’re customizing Linux”

Obirek describes Robotnik’s system design process for Linux systems: “A company calls and says “we want a Linux box”, they give us the specs and we go build the machine that we test , make sure it works, then we send them the sample, they’ll use it with their application and they’ll say “ok it works fine, we want to have this many units”. This is the kind of process we’ve figured out that makes everyone happy, because a customer doesn’t want to order 50 or a 100 units and find out it doesn’t work. That’s the process we use, it’s worked out very well for us.” When asked if demand was growing he said the systems were at “[…] the bottom rung of our business” but that “We do find it is growing with some of the orders, it is making headway.” He points out a benefit of being an independent company like Robotnik is that it has more freedom to experiment with business models, where as larger companies are restricted by pre-existing contracts and expectations.

We discussed any potential for other systems being offered with Linux pre-installed at Robotnik. When asked, Obirek explained he didn’t see any additional systems being developed right now, mainly because many of the customers who purchase the systems are people who are technically educated with the software and are more likely to customize the systems themselves. He says “[…] there’s the Linux people, they’re like the mechanics, they like to tinker with it, they know what they’re talking about.” Discussing further, he says “Is there a gaming system we could build with open source? We could if there was a need for it but there is no demand”. “Hobbyists don’t want an expensive machine to fool around on,” he explained further, “they’re going to add their own parts.”

Talking about open source software (OSS) more broadly, Obirek explains Robotnik’s position on installing OSS on customer’s computers. He says “if the customer comes in and they are building a system, they can pretty much request anything they want in their system, if it’s legal and free”. He gives the example that Robotnik will often pre-install OpenOffice and Mozilla Firefox for people.

Another issue was of system and software support for Linux. Robotnik offers support for Windows and Apple systems, but not officially for Linux. When asked why, he says “[…] because we can’t find a good remote support system for Linux. Linux remote support doesn’t work as well”. That said, he does say that for customers buying a system to put Linux on themselves instead of their Ubuntu install, Robotnik would “certainly help them with the install and with minor problems”, but for more complex problems they do not have the tools or resources to offer full support.

We finished the talk by discussing his thoughts on the future of the hardware market. Obirek feels the future for companies like his is “[…] moving more towards repair, maintenance, that kind of stuff”. He feels that independents need to focus on staying technically trained to offer superior repair services. He later clarified by email that Robotnik is “[…] doing more service contracts/repairs…But the retail/internet part of our business is still huge. We will push sales as long as long it is profitable.”

ACOSS thanks Mr. Obirek for taking the time to talk about Robotnik’s experiences with open source software. You can contact Mr. Obirek by email at tomek@robotnik.com or you can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robotnikdotcom.

*Robotnik logo image is from the Robotnik twitter account: http://twitter.com/account/profile_image/robotnikdotcom?hreflang=en

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