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The last 12 months in Ubuntu (and a brief look ahead)

This has been an interesting year for Ubuntu with two on-schedule releases. Ubuntu community leader, Ubuntu Developer and general a good egg Dave Walker takes a look back at the last 12 months of Ubuntu…

This article originally appeared in issue 96 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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The former release was rather important as it is the third LTS (Long Term Support) release in Ubuntu history. This means that it will receive support (updates) for three years on the desktop, and five years on the server – rather than the traditional 18 months that an interim release receives. The operating system is gaining traction with age, and with the release cycle, which I believe many thought was unsustainable, is solidifying this. The predictable release time has always been something that has been key to Ubuntu’s adoption.

For the upgrade path to Lucid Lynx, many users would have upgraded from the previous release of 9.10 (Karmic Koala). However, users could have upgraded directly from the previous LTS, 8.04 (Hardy Heron), which was released in 2008. For these users, they would have seen the largest changes, which would have incorporated all of the changes introduced in the interim three releases between 8.04 and 10.04. The additional testing required to test upgrades from both is significant. If bug reports and other media (such as forums) are used as a base for issues encountered, it seems that this was covered well.

As 10.04 was the most important LTS to date, it was somewhat conservative. For the first time, Ubuntu imported from Debian Testing (or Debian’s current development version), rather than the traditional unstable version. There was the significant visual change with the brand refresh, including the dropping of the brown-based palette and the move of the window buttons to the left. While this seemed significant at the time, most seemed to have become accustomed to it.

I recently booted into a 9.10 (Karmic) system and the visual experience felt very dated. Considering this is little over a year old, it really demonstrates the rapid pace of the visual improvements we have been seeing. Additionally, LTSs have previously had ‘point releases’, but the notation of cadences have been added to these. This is the ‘predictable release schedule’ of a point release every three months after release, meaning we are now on 10.04.2. This means that there is a new ISO CD image released, which undergoes the QA (quality assurance) process to show it is ready.

At UDS (Ubuntu Developers Summit), for Maverick that was held in Belgium. Mark Shuttleworth introduced us to the marketing term of ‘crossing the chasm’. This essentially meant that we are currently stuck in the ‘chasm’, still in the early adopters stage. To get to the height of the bell curve, we need to fill the chasm for greater adoption. It seems he is of the opinion that we have the ‘innovators’, but haven’t yet secured the ‘early adopters’. This seems a fair analysis, and some of the moves that Ubuntu (driven by Canonical) have been making are targeted towards solving this issue.

With 10.10, which as previously mentioned was released on the notable date of 10 October 2010 at 10:10am. Those upgrading, rather than doing a fresh install, needed to have made an active effort, since by default the update manager doesn’t suggest people should upgrade from an LTS release to a non-LTS version. This, in my mind, gave Ubuntu the chance to be a little more adventurous than normal. This release, being only being six months since the LTS version, allowed more flexibility than normal. Was it as adventurous as it could have been? Perhaps not. It is a very solid release, but not as daredevil as I feel it perhaps could have been. However, it has clearly set the seeds for what we will see in the next release.

Looking forward into this year, there will be Natty Narwhal which is the currently scheduled for release on 28 April 2011. This is the development release that everyone is working towards at the moment. Then there is the currently unnamed ‘O’ release (guesses for the name welcome!), which is scheduled for release in October.

One of the features that is most exciting is uTouch, which is multi-touch and gesture support. This is some significant work that Ubuntu has been undertaking since Maverick; with compatible hardware, it will change the human-computer interaction mechanism for the better. Gestures vary from one- to four-finger interaction and this system is rather groundbreaking when compared with multi-touch on other operating systems. One of the interesting projects to watch is GEIS, which is ‘Gesture Engine Interface and Support’, along with Grail (Gesture Recognition And Instantiation Library). While these are not significant to the end user, together it is these that will shape what the future of multi-touch. The current development version has around nine blueprints that are targeted towards uTouch, which makes the next release of Ubuntu very exciting.

One of the key challenges I see is maintaining simplicity of interaction, but also having the flexibility to have some complex chained interactions, which may be difficult to initially learn. Natty Narwhal is looking to be the release with perhaps the most visible interface change yet, with the Unity interface set to shape the default user interface. The artwork for Natty is yet to be displayed, but based on prior leaps of improvement I’m sure it’s something to look forward to. The next important date in the development calendar is 3 February when we can expect the Alpha 2 snapshot, but daily builds of Natty can be tried at any point.

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