The Ubuntu Linux distribution has come a long way since it’s first release in 2004. It started out as a nicely packaged Linux desktop, built from a specific set of packages cultivated from the nearly thirty thousand packages available in the Debian distribution. Regular six-month releases ensured that Ubuntu would always be close to the cutting edge of Linux and free software development. Every fourth release is a long-term support offering, which gets security and support updates for three years. In the last seven years Canonical, the primary commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, has added a server version of Ubuntu, built UbuntuOne, a cross-platform cloud storage solution, and made great strides in cloud computing.
Hewlett Packard has recently announced that they’ve selected Ubuntu to power the HP Public Cloud; and the Indian Supreme Court has recently switched to Ubuntu from Red Hat Enterprise Linux; but the bread and butter of Ubuntu development remains their desktop offering. Version 11.10, codenamed Oneiric Ocelot and officially available on Thursday, October 13, is the latest release from Canonical and packs a number of interesting iterations of their work.
Oneiric Ocelot brings the Ubuntu Software Center forward as a first class citizen in the Ubuntu world. The look and feel of the Software Center has been updated to make it consistent with the overall Ubuntu aesthetic. Also updated is the number and variety of applications available, including commercial applications.
Canonical has been working hard to make publishing houses aware of the Software Center, and they’ve attracted some nice titles. They’re working to build an even more impressive selection of titles, and to make it as easy as possible for users to find the apps they want.
Concurrently, Canonical is courting application developers through their developer.ubuntu.com portal, which explains how to build and submit an application to the Software Center. Canonical reports a 5x increase in application submissions in the three weeks since the developer portal was announced. According to Gerry Carr, Director of Communications at Canonical, they’re now approving at least one app per day.
The motivation behind the developer platform, and the updated Software Center, is to improve the quality of apps available to users. There’s also work to monetize apps to the benefit of the developers through Ubuntu Pay. It remains to be seen just how willing Linux users will be to pay for apps, given the long history of “free as in beer” software. While only a single data point, I think the Humble Bundle offers some valuable insight, and I’d wager that there’s money to be made in the Software Center: the average price spent by Linux users for the Humble Bundle offerings always exceeds that of Windows or Mac users. The current Humble Bundle sees Linux users paying twice as much as the average Windows user.
The last release of Ubuntu, version 11.04, featured the addition of Unity, which was an effort to revitalize desktop Linux for modern hardware while simultaneously development meaningful experiences for touch-based interfaces. It was met with some hostility, as its a marked change from the desktop paradigms to which many users have grown accustomed. Ubuntu 11.10 features some refinements to the overall experience, but it’s clear that Unity is here to stay.
I asked Gerry Carr about the substantial shift in paradigm from the traditional GNOME desktop to Unity’s Dash. Carr agreed that it can be a jarring transition, because it breaks with many of the metaphors we’ve grown up using for what feels like forever, but the ways in which we use computers is changing and the interfaces need to adapt. More and more of our use of computers is to access Internet resources, so the interface should facilitate that in ways that make sense. You should be able to access more than just what’s on your system.
Carr pointed out that the lens mechanism supports heterogenous storage, which means you can keep your data where it makes sense to keep it, but still access it through a consistent, easy-to-use interface. “The Ubuntu experience is as much a rich local experience as it is a cloud experience,” said Carr.
An example of this kind of integration is the Dash itself. When searching for applications, the various lenses will find your currently installed apps as well as suggest apps available for installation. This completely sidesteps the old model of stopping what you’re doing, opening something like the Software Center, searching for an app, and finally installing it. By integrating app search directly into the Dash, Ubuntu provides a single interface to reduce the friction a user experiences.
To be fair, this is still an evolving solution. For people set in their ways, the transition to the Unity experience can be frustrating. I think one of Canonical’s big shortcomings thus far has been a real education effort to explain the value of the lens metaphor, and to help people realize the utility of it.
That complaint aside, Canonical has been working to make lenses that make the Ubuntu experience better. There’s a new Music lens that allows users to search for music. The music lens will search the user’s local music files, as well as query the Ubuntu Music Store, allowing a user to quickly identify which albums might be missing from their local collection and to buy that music quickly and easily. This is a pretty nice convergence of the local+Internet search capabilities of the lens system.
All searches — whether for apps, or files, or media, or whatever — support rich context appropriate filtering. When searching for files, you can filter by file type, size, or last modified date. When searching for media, you can filter by decade or genre. Searching for apps allows you to filter by category or rating. None of this is particularly revolutionary, but the ease with which Ubuntu 11.10 integrates the search and filter functions to the lenses is quite impressive.
Lenses don’t have to come from Canonical, either: there’s a rich API for developing your own lenses. A great example of this is the Ask Ubuntu lens. This integrates a search for the StackExchange-powered AskUbuntu.com site right into your desktop, allowing you to search for answers to problems you might be experiencing. You don’t need to open a browser and navigate to a site: you simply
search using the Unity interface in the same way that you search for new apps to install or new music to listen to.
Another neat addition to Ubuntu 11.10 is Deja Dup, a backup application that works like Apple’s Time Machine. Backups can be stored on your computer’s hard drive, an external hard drive, or to your UbuntuOne account. Storing your backups to your UbuntuOne account allows you to restore your system to different hardware, which is a neat feature. It’s also worth noting that Deja Dup is not a Canonical project: the Deja Dup folks built atop the UbuntuOne API to make this work seamlessly for Ubuntu users.
For anyone that’s used Ubuntu in the past, you may be pleased to learn that 11.10 ditches Evolution in favor of Mozilla Thunderbird as the default mail client. When I asked Carr about the motivation for this shift he immediately responded “user demand”. Clearly users are dissatisfied with Evolution. Carr also noted that more developer effort is being applied to Thunderbird, making it an easy choice for installation.
Ubuntu 11.10 is the last release before the next Long Term Support version, so much of what we’ll be seeing on Thursday is laying the foundation for the what will be in the next version. The great thing about free software like Ubuntu is that you can use version 11.10 right now: simply follow these instructions. Similarly, you can install what will be version 12.04 long before its official release, and you can help shape the direction of that release by filing bug reports!
I’ve been upgrading my laptop to the latest version of Ubuntu pretty regularly, and I’ve never really been disappointed. The upgrade to 11.04 was a bit disconcerting at first, but the more I use it the less it bothers me. As Canonical works to improve the lens mechanism of Unity, and as third party lenses proliferate, I expect that I’ll enjoy using 11.10 more.