THE LATEST OUTING of Canonical's Linux distribution Ubuntu shows that the firm is on the right track to make it the default choice of Linux for those thinking of making the switch from Windows.
Following on from one of the year's biggest operating system launches, Ubuntu 10.04, this latest 10.10 beta is somewhat more sedate, almost lacking in the visual novelty that its predecessor had. While 10.04 was a Long Term Support release (LTS), 10.10 will be a standard release that comes with 18 months of updates. Not only are LTS releases more infrequent, the longer life and more consistent branding and support of 10.04 will mean that 10.10 and later releases until the next LTS version will always be the act that followed The Beatles.
The latest 10.10 beta shows that Canonical is sticking to its plan of refining Ubuntu into a polished product that will rival not Microsoft's Windows 7 but Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard. Linux distributions have focused far too long on the inner workings of the operating system rather than the interface presented to the user. As a kernel, Linux has been more than a match for Windows' NT or OS X's Mach kernels, but an operating system isn't completely defined by its underlying kernel and 10.10 pays much needed attention to the upper layers.
Those who fear about getting past the install phase should stop worrying. The combination of a try before you install LiveCD and what can only be described as a masterpiece of an installer means that installing Ubuntu is as easy as making a cup of tea. Many reviews in the past have concentrated on the installer but frankly the whole procedure is so well polished by now that perhaps the biggest nod of approval would be not to mention it at all.
Actually, the revamped installer is the first hint of what Ubuntu has become all about. The attention to detail is clearly evident as 10.10, even at this beta stage, is showing the level of design detail we have come to expect from Apple. Small, perhaps even inconsequential details such as the volume adjust controls are delightful.
This latest version also brings multi-touch support, though the best results are only seen if you have access to a Dell Latitude XT2. The preferential support for Dell's laptop comes from the fact that Ubuntu used it as the reference machine for multi-touch development. By the time Ubuntu 10.10 comes out of beta, the developers have promised that other 4-finger multi-touch devices such as Apple's Magic Trackpad will also be supported. Canonical is also trying to bring out guidelines that try to unify the user experience with multi-touch applications on Ubuntu. It's the sort of move that sounds like boring administration for developers but is exactly what's needed to create an intuitive, easy to learn environment. At present it's clear that multi-touch is a work in progress in Ubuntu, although the fact that it is in progress is excellent news.
Perhaps the most important evolution is the updated Ubuntu Software Center. The application store now has more than just free software, and installation of third party applications is just as easy as Apple's App Store or Google's Android Market. The changes from 10.04 are subtle but it's easy to see that the Ubuntu Software Center could become a major selling point and a money-spinner for Canonical.
There are the usual accoutrements of updates to the kernel and applications software such as browsers, productivity applications, social networking clients and media players. Ubuntu One, the cloud based storage system that is in public beta, has been intertwined more deeply within the operating system, allowing users to backup folders with a simple right click.
Of course you could adjust the volume and acquire third party software with previous versions of Ubuntu but the truth is that fit and finish sells. No one questions the capabilities of the Linux kernel, but some of the software that has surrounded it has at times been finished to a standard that can most kindly be described as comparable to carpentry rather than cabinetry.
Users have shown down the years that high production standards are rewarded. Canonical, in deciding to concentrate on the superficial isn't moving away from engineering a worthwhile operating system. On the contrary, its plan could finally mean that long running joke of 'the year of the Linux desktop' finally comes to an end.
Ubuntu 10.10 will never garner the attention of 10.04 and nor should it. LTS releases mean a lot more, and the three year support cycle for desktop distributions is particularly helpful for enterprise users who need the security of knowing that an operating system will be supported for a certain period of time. It is perhaps better to look upon 10.10 as more of a bleeding edge release, something that is giving a real world shakedown to technology that will be incorporated into the next LTS release.
Even at this beta stage, Ubuntu 10.10 looks to be the correct way forward for the distribution. Ubuntu might not attract some experienced Linux users who prefer other distributions, however it is likely to gain widespread acceptance with its mix of intuitive and high quality software. µ