Ubuntu Lucid Lynx: Ubuntu's Most Innovative

Thursday Mar 18th 2010 by Bruce Byfield

Ubuntu Lucid Lynx’s goals are clear and ambitious, yet not every Linux desktop user will be happy with the new direction.

Ubuntu’s Lucid Lynx (Ubuntu 10.04) is still six weeks away from release. However, on the eve of the first beta release, the daily builds and news releases suggest that Lucid will be one of the most innovative versions of Ubuntu for several years.

Scheduled as a Long Term Support release that will be supported for three years on the desktop and five on the server, Lucid also shows Ubuntu pressing hard toward well-defined goals.

More than any release in several years, Lucid shows signs of clear direction, as Ubuntu continues to round off its roster of basic applications, adapts to current usability trends, and pushes harder towards commercialization.

In addition to the first beta, a second beta and a release candidate are due before the final release. However, in between these official releases, you can also download a daily build any time that you want the very latest developments. The stability of all these builds may vary, although generally Lucid has been stable since the first alpha, despite some error messages during boot-up.

Ubuntu Software Selection

Early in Lucid's development cycle, the Ubuntu Development Summit announced that The GIMP would be dropped from the default selection of software installed. Since The GIMP is widely considered an example of excellence in free software, the announcement created some controversy, but the decision was in keeping with Ubuntu's general priorities. Not only does The GIMP take up considerable space on a CD, but, more importantly, its features far exceed what beginning users could need.

Ubuntu has previously shown the same priorities in favoring Brassero or Nautilus' built-in CD burning features to the more complete feature set of CD burners like GNOMEBaker. Similarly, F-Spot, Ubuntu's default photo editor, while well-designed and easy to use, has a far smaller feature set than digiKam, its equivalent on the KDE desktop.

Lacking the GIMP, Lucid offers users OpenOffice.org's Draw, a simpler and often under-rated application that is already included on the CD. In other places, the same priority has been applied, with PiTiVi being offered for audio-visual editing rather than a large or more complex tool line Cinelerra, and Simple Scan instead of XSane.

Perhaps for lack of space, Cheese, the webcam operator is not included, but with these selections, Ubuntu now offers a well-rounded set of tools that are among the easiest to use in their categories.

The question is whether -- or perhaps how long -- such basic tools will meet the needs of users, and how aware users can become of the alternatives in the Ubuntu software repositories. The selection may also be unsatisfying for experienced users, who will now have to do added software installation in order to get the applications they expect.

Current Trends and an Old One Revived

One of the chief goals in Lucid is to reduce the boot time of Linux to ten seconds on the test machines used by Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm. This is a goal that is probably of only moderate interest to experienced users, many of whom still pride themselves on how long their computers have been running without rebooting, but probably appeals to new users as a proof of technical excellence.

A major tool to help reach this goal, is Plymouth, a graphical boot process first introduced a couple of releases ago in Fedora, Ubuntu's closest rival. However, currently, Lucid is still taking about twenty-five seconds to boot on my test machine -- less than two-thirds the time of Karmic Koala, Ubuntu's previous release, but still some ways from the target time.

In Lucid, Ubuntu is also responding to the growing importance of social networking. Instead of making the browser take over some of the role of the traditional desktop, the way that Google's Chrome OS does, Ubuntu has opted instead for bringing the social networking tools to the desktop, much as KDE does with its social desktop.

In Lucid, the MeMenu, the GNOME panel applet that identifies the current user, now lists your online status -- Available, Away, Busy, Invisible, Offline -- as top level menu items. You can also use the MeMenu to open Gwibber, an application for centrally managing, viewing, and responding to social networking accounts, or to log into Ubuntu One's online storage.

Ubuntu Lucid lynx, memenu

Ubuntu Lucid Lynx’s Memenu

In the drive towards usability, Lucid is also reaching back to revive the idea of including a manual. This is an idea that has hardly been heard of since the Dot-Com Era, when companies tried to sell Linux in retail boxes. Yet it is an obvious one for a distribution that hopes to attract large numbers of new desktop users. The Ubuntu manual is not shipped with the beta, and is currently just under two-thirds complete, but is available as a PDF download.

When finished, the manual should be about 150 pages. As might be expected, its focus is on the GNOME desktop, as well as a description of open source practices, although more advanced sections on the command line and troubleshooting are currently listed but largely unwritten. The pages published so far are written in a clear style and are well laid-out, but the real question is whether the manual will be use. Possibly, a series of videos might be more likely to be used, although, unlike the manual, they would need to be published on a separate CD.

Next Page: Ubuntu's drive to profitiablity

The Drive To Profitability

Profitability has always been Canonical's goal. However, with Lucid, Canonical appears to be pushing harder to reach that long-term goal.

One sign of this renewed commitment may be the new default desktop theme. Instead of the brown and orange Human theme of previous Ubuntu releases, Lucid sports a theme of purple and orange called Ambiance. Or, as described on the Ubuntu branding wiki, the theme has changed from "man" to "light."

Ubuntu Lucid lynx, linux desktop theme

Ubuntu Lucid Lynx’s Desktop Theme

What makes Ambiance seem part of an effort to make Ubuntu more commercial is the pseudo-poetic explanation given for the change:

We're drawn to Light because it denotes both warmth and clarity, and intrigued by the idea that "light" is a good value in software. Good software is "light" in the sense that it uses your resources efficiently, runs quickly, and can easily be reshaped as needed. Ubuntu represents a break with the bloatware of proprietary operating systems and an opportunity to delight to those who use computers for work and play. More and more of our communications are powered by light, and in future, our processing power will depend on our ability to work with light, too.

So far as this explanation has any meaning, it suggests a change for marketing reasons -- an impression strengthened by the fact that it was also accompanied by relatively minor changes in Ubuntu logos. The theme change is an exercise in branding, intended to make Ubuntu more appealing from boot-up -- although some aspects of the theme, such as the placement of the title bar buttons on the left, are proving controversial among existing users.

But perhaps the greatest indication of the renewed emphasis on profitability is the effort to surround the basic distribution with possible revenue sources for Canonical. For several releases now, Ubuntu has included a Partners repositories that includes proprietary software. More recently, the Ubuntu desktop has added links to Ubuntu One, an online storage service that includes a free two gigabytes of space, but also sells additional storage.

Now, in Lucid, these services are joined by a change in the default search engine from Google to Yahoo! because of "revenue sharing deal with Yahoo!" according to Rick Spencer, a Canonical Engineering Manager.

In addition, an Ubuntu One MusicStore is planned. A link in the Rhythmbox music player already exists in the Lucid beta. Significantly, the link requires the proprietary MP3 codex rather than a free format like Ogg Vorbis -- an indication (if one is needed) that the main motivation is profit rather than usability or software freedom.

Ubuntu Ends and Means

Usability, adaptability, commercialization -- few releases of any distribution can be summarized so tidily as Ubuntu's Lucid Lynx does. With Lucid, the goals that Ubuntu has been discussing for several years seem suddenly to have been accelerated.

Such well-defined goals alone would make Lucid an ambitious release. However, when you add them to the fact that, in order to achive them, Canonical and Ubuntu are also rushing to obtain them faster than upstream projects like GNOME can absorb all the changes, they appear risky as well.

In focusing on their own goals, Canonical and Ubuntu risk the mistrust of the rest of the free software world, opening themselves to charges of exploiting the community for their own narrow commercial purposes. In fact, already, subdued grumblings are audible here and there on the Ubuntu mail forums.

Another reason to watch Lucid and later releases is that Ubuntu is deliberately going counter to the conventional wisdom that has existed for over a decade that companies cannot make a profit from the desktop. With its growing ecosystem of possible revenue-generating tools around Ubuntu, Canonical clearly thinks otherwise, but the likelihood of user backlash seems strong. Too many free and open source software users remain suspicious of commercialization, and none are used to seeing it on their desktop.

Most likely, it will be another four or six releases before the wisdom or rashness of Canonical's directions becomes clear. However, what makes Lucid a landmark is the clarity with which its design decisions reveal exactly what Ubuntu is attempting and what is at stake. Lucid and successive releases will either overturn the conventional wisdom, or else strongly reinforce it..

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