One of the long-standing problems with Linux is that even the varieties that aim for accessibility often look like something ordinary people won’t want to use. This has been true of even the most populist free flavor—and certainly the one with the highest name recognition—Ubuntu, which “out of the box” had the appearance of afterthought even though its innards and interface were smartly conceived and constructed. But with Ubuntu’s newest long-term support (LTS) release, 10.04 (nicknamed “Lucid Lynx”), developer Canonical seems to be changing forever—and for the better.
Gone are the muddy look and questionable color scheme that have defined Ubuntu’s default look for a long time. In their place is a Gnome KDE desktop that’s both smooth and striking, but more importantly inviting—its violet hues and far gentler undertones and highlights give the warm, comfortable feel any potentially off-putting software demands. No one will ever be able to claim with a straight face that it’s as pretty or as polished as what you get with Windows or Mac OS X. But for the first time Ubuntu looks as though it really deserves to compete with those big boys.
Of course, Ubuntu can only go so far fueled by its outward appearance—like any OS, it does need the substance to back it up. And, what do you know, it’s got that, too. This comes by way of its typical ease of use, relatively unfettered features, and a strong software selection. But it also shows itself in new capabilities that emit more of the OS-of-all-trades feeling that Microsoft and Apple have been capitalizing on for—well, forever.
Easy access to the Ubuntu One cloud-based music store (through the Rhythmbox Music Player), for instance, goes a long way to soothing the loss of more popular PC music software like the iTunes Store and the Zune Marketplace. No, its selection can’t seriously compete with the other two, but it’s strong enough, and a major acknowledgement of the entertainment-oriented spin of desktop-OSes that Ubuntu has been ignoring (or at least camouflaging) for a while now. And because the store is tied directly to the Ubuntu One cloud storage service, your songs are backed up automatically and can be synced to any other systems connected to Ubuntu One.
Similarly, the new “Me” menu (which is given the same name as your login account) coordinates popular social-networking features in very handy ways. Like popular PC-based aggregation clients, the Me menu puts all your accounts in one convenient place—you don’t even need to open your browser, or run a separate program. There are 17 offered in the Empathy chat client, from go-everywhere names like Facebook, AIM, MSN, and Yahoo to less immediately recognizable services like MXit, SILC, and Gadu-Gadu, and seven more (Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.) in the Gwibber social-networking app.
Given the popularity of many of these sites and services in general, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if something like this were implemented in future versions of Windows and Mac OS. These are now why a lot of people use the Internet, and Ubuntu’s embracing and more easily enabling them might entice some users who wouldn’t have wanted to go to the trouble of finding and learning potentially complex open-source solutions.
Software and Start Time
Software is just as easy to work with in Ubuntu 10.04. Access to the vast (and potentially terrifying) libraries of free, open-source apps available on the Internet has improved with an updated version of the Software Center app that was introduced in the last minor update of Ubuntu, 9.10, last year. It’s been rigorously redesigned to be quicker and easier for even the uninitiated to use. The selection, filtered through such categories as “Accessories,” “Education,” “Games,” and “Sound and Video” can be imposing, if not outright cryptic—one game’s description, “Kenta Cho’s A7Xpg,” doesn’t seem very helpful, for example. There are, however, lots of choices that are easier to explore and follow up on than is the case on Windows or Mac machines.
But many who just need the basics might not need to ever download anything at all. The preinstalled apps cover all the bases, from typical accessories (Calculator and Character Map) and standard utilities (an e-mail client, F-Spot Photo Manager, video and audio players, and a disc burning tool) to familiar games (Solitaire, Mahjongg, Sudoku, and Minesweeper and Tetris clones) and the full OpenOffice.org suite of productivity programs. New users will rapidly learn that few, if any, of these are as polished as their name-brand counterparts, but given their unifying cost (free), it’s an astounding offering.
Even something that’s been a traditional strength of Ubuntu has gone under the knife. Previous versions of the OS haven’t take than long to boot, at least in comparison with some versions of Windows, but Canonical has really boosted the startup time here. Version 8.04 took 55 seconds just to reach the login screen on one of our ThinkPad laptops; 10.04 gets to the desktop in only 32 seconds. Ubuntu 10.04 achieves this with the help of Upstart, which uses events to start and stop tasks—a better solution than the traditional System V init daemon that hasn’t played nicely with modern devices like USB drives and network-mounted file systems.
Conclusion: Unleashed Ubuntu
Since the last LTS release, 8.04 (“Hardy Heron”) just over two years ago, Ubuntu has come a very long way. It’s still not about to unseat the far more popular—if also far more expensive—and better-known operating systems from Microsoft and Apple, but it finally seems to be making significant strides toward attracting and keeping a wider audience.
As with all LTS releases, Canonical will support Ubuntu 10.04 for three years and we wouldn’t be surprise to see even more substantial changes during that time. Version 10.10 (“Maverick Meerkat”) has already been announced for release later this year, so it won’t be long before Canonical has a chance to prove it can maintain this momentum over the long term. If the changes in upcoming versions are as thorough and exciting as they are in 10.04, Ubuntu may end up revolutionizing the desktop OS landscape—and a lot sooner than anyone expected.