Teeth make smiles, and smiles make sales - Unidentified Harrods person in Alan Sugar's The Apprentice
CANONICAL'S UBUNTU has a lot of hype to live up to. First released in 2004, Ubuntu has established itself as one of the most intuitive and accessible Linux distributions and has never shied away from giving both Microsoft and Apple a run for their money. Ubuntu 10.04, dubbed Lucid Lynx, builds on previous iterations by integrating social networking and cloud services directly into a slick looking and responsive desktop.
Slick and responsive doesn't however preclude some questionable choices visually. There was much rejoicing upon the announcement Canonical would be updating Ubuntu's design from the earthy tones that had featured on previous releases. Unfortunately, as if to provide further proof of their all-inclusive nature, Ubuntu's apparently daltonic design team came up with a violet theme unlikely to be everyone's cup of tea, unless the tea is laced with hallucinogens.
Surrounding the purple haze are dark taskbars and window frames, which make the desktop feel noticeably smaller. In a polemic move that further exacerbates this claustrophobic feel, buttons have been moved to the top left corner, opening up vast amounts of unused space on the right hand side.
Canonical has said the change is a preemptive move, and that the resulting no-app's land will be filled with innovative features in future releases, but it all sounds a bit like selling a car with no wheels in the hope future models will fly.
One of the big calling cards for Lucid Lynx is the integration of social applications into the desktop's new Me Menu. This essentially comprises three apps - Empathy, Evolution and Gwibber for chat, email and microblogging respectively. All three blend in nicely with the desktop and share an indicator applet in the taskbar, removing much of the clutter of running the processes individually.
While integrating application suites has many benefits, problems arise when any one of the provided services is just not good enough. Empathy seems like a solid alternative to Pidgin. Evolution is unlikely to be a very popular choice among a userbase most likely using Thunderbird, Claws or Mutt already. Gwibber feels slow, and might seem overly simplistic when compared to other microblogging clients. Changing any of these applications as your default messaging client will immediately render your desktop a little less pleasant to use.
Hopefully with time applications might be integrated interchangeably in Gnome, but for now you're stuck following online hacks which might or might not be of use six months down the line. Fortunately, unlike using Outlook on Windows or Mail.app on Mac OS X, there is no reason competing applications cannot work as seamlessly as those provided by Ubuntu.
In parallel, Ubuntu 10.04 provides tighter integration with Canonical's cloud-based efforts. Despite having a multimillionaire benefactor, Canonical has no doubt heeded Yahoo's warnings on the need for diversification by developing Ubuntu One, a service which provides both 2GB of free Dropbox-like storage and an online music store.
Alas the online music store, while potentially providing some much needed revenue for Canonical, will likely remain unused by most users. To distance itself from the many anonymous online music stores, Canonical provides the same limited catalogue in the same proprietary format.
Furthermore with Jamendo, Magnatune and now Ubuntu One, Rhythmbox is quickly becoming more cluttered with stores than many local high streets. Disabling any of them is a case of unloading the appropriate plugin, but you can't help but think Canonical is needlessly investing time and effort on a feature likely to be met by resounding silence.
Where Ubuntu should shine is in providing access to Linux's endless software repositories. The Ubuntu Software Centre provides a visually attractive front-end for aptitude, which does all the heavy lifting interfacing with the APT package manager, but chip away at the veneer and you'll find Canonical has done very little beyond providing basic functionality. User ratings, ranking by popularity or suggesting similar packages to replace currently installed duds are all notably absent, making sifting through the immense catalogue cumbersome unless you know what you are looking for.
Admittedly, no other package management system provides all of these, but Ubuntu is squarely focused on the inexperienced. Furthermore, Canonical plans on providing paid apps through the Ubuntu Software Centre in the near future, in which case feedback on an application's quality will be essential.
Ubuntu evolved at a blistering speed. When you experienced the wealth of improvement from Breezy Badger to Feisty Fawn, it was hard not to wonder whether a Linux-based OS might finally usurp its commercial rivals as the ultimate desktop experience in the near future. Canonical has put a lot of effort into catching up with both Windows and Mac OSX and on many fronts has largely succeeded. However, as in Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, merely closing the gap on each iteration is insufficient to overtake your rivals entirely.
Canonical has largely focused on toning down bleeding-edge applications to run smoothly in a stable, hassle-free operating system. The challenge facing Ubuntu is no longer merely attracting users from commercial rivals, but also to stem the loss of users to rival Linux distributions. The Me Menu is a good indicator of how Ubuntu can evolve, innovate and differentiate itself from internal competition such as Archlinux, Debian, Fedora, Suse, Mandriva and others, despite building on the same open source components.
Whether Ubuntu is the right distribution for you is largely down to personal preference. From the ivory tower of tech journalism most reviewers are quick to point out Linux is a pain to install and use, and Ubuntu has somehow overcome this crippling heritage to become an easy to install and usable OS. Most likely this condescending attitude derives from never actually having used Linux - most distributions now provide Live CDs and easy installers, with access to the same software through their own package management systems.
Ubuntu's one-size-fits-all nature makes it a good initial introduction to Linux-based operating systems. Visually, it keeps improving, but it is not quite all the way there yet. While many can argue whether Linux is ready for the desktop, there's little doubt that Canonical packages up Ubuntu better than the vast majority of distributions out there. The biggest compliment one can pay to Ubuntu is that it feels like a professional product in its installation, look and feel and above all updates. If nothing else, you should give Ubuntu a try to give you some perspective on how well your own OS suits you.
Maturity and popularity aid in usability, integration with cloud services, long-term support (LTS) release, painless update from previous version.
Might be too Mickey Mouse for hardcore Linux users, strong branding and colour scheme.
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