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Ubuntu 11.10 launch interview- Unity is here to stay

Linux User talks to Canonical's Gerry Carr to get the full low-down on Ubuntu 11.10 'Oneric Ocelot' ahead of its 13th October launch…

Gerry Carr is a busy man. As director of communications at Canonical, it’s his job to make sure that everyone knows what to expect from the launch of Ubuntu 11.10 – also known, in classic Ubuntu fashion, by its animal codename Oneiric Ocelot.

“We’re describing it as an iteration rather than a revolution,” Carr explains of the release his company has spent the last six months shepherding towards release. “Really, it’s the first step towards this drive that we have to break down the separation between the operating system and the applications – the legacy of where Ubuntu’s come from – and the cloud, and the Internet, so basically where people get content and applications from outside of their local PCs.”

Carr, previously Canonical’s marketing manager, is used to having to sell Ubuntu releases to the Linux-using public. When he took responsibility for the site back in 2008, he spoke publicly of his desire to demonstrate what could be achieved with truly open tools – something which won him a great deal of respect in the community, even if he admitted to cheating occasionally with a copy of Adobe Photoshop.

Now, as communications director, Carr has the responsibility of keeping the community – and our readership – informed as to the goings-on at Canonical.

Talk us through the major new features of Ubuntu 11.10 ‘Oneiric Ocelot,’ compared to the previous release.

“One of the most significant steps forward is the work we’ve done on this release to the Ubuntu Software Centre. That changed in this release in three ways. First of all, on a basic level, just in the variety and range and the number of applications that we’re making available through the Ubuntu Software Centre now, which will only ramp up significantly across the lifetime of Ubuntu 11.10.

“The other significant step forward, which is a very recent one but we’re already starting to see the benefits from, is the release of Basically, what does is make it much more transparent about how to make an application available on Ubuntu, and at the same time how to develop an application natively for the platform.

“Finally, we’ve done a fair amount of work to make it much more integrated into the Ubuntu experience itself, so for instance if I got to Dash and search for applications, it’ll prompt me with applications that are locally installed and also with applications that are available via the Ubuntu Software Centre. That’s a big step forward we’ve made for Ubuntu 11.10, and I think it will become a more popular yet less visible part of what we’re making available ongoing.”

“One of the most significant steps forward is the work we've done on this release to the Ubuntu Software Centre.”

When Ubuntu 11.04 launched with Unity, there was feeling in the community that it wasn’t quite ready for release. Is that something that’s been addressed in this latest release?

“You learn far more by releasing a product than you do by developing it under wraps. I mean, obviously, we believe that the product is and was ready for prime-time, if you like, for a vast majority of use cases and a vast majority of users. We knew we were running pretty tight towards the release date of that product, and we had stopgaps in place if we felt it wasn’t ready but we didn’t have to use them.

“It was ready, but there will be some faults. We knew we wanted to get it out at least a year before the LTS releases, to give it that time to iron out the edges. 11.10 has six months additional development in terms of making it smoother and faster and better than Ubuntu 11.04.

“The Dash has become much more mature in this release. It was its first release with Ubuntu 11.04, and I think with 11.10 users will start to realise the centrality of its place in how to navigate their way around this operating system. The Launcher, we’ve done a lot of work – and learnt a lot about this – with improving the algorithms for search.

“We’ve broken down more the difference of whether I’m searching for applications or whether I’m searching for files, that’s much more of a distinctive location for either. We’ve also, with this release, made clearer what the Lens concept is: you can consider it a subset of Dash, which allows us to focus on a single type of content.

“We released 11.04 because we thought it was ready then. We knew that there would be some faults, but we’ve had six months to iron out those faults and I think 11.10 is better, and 12.04 will be better again – but that’s the inevitability of development cycles in software.”

You mention making the concept of Lenses clearer – what are the best examples of real-world uses of Lenses in Ubuntu?

“For a few months now there’s been a Help Lens, which is a Lens that accesses Ask Ubuntu – an external site with lots of help and support queries and answers for Ubuntu. So, a Lens uses the same interface, more or less, as the Dash, so users don’t have to learn a new interface in order to access different types of content.

“With this release, we’re bringing out the Music Lens, which offers a Dash-like experience and allows you to use the search bar to search for, let’s say, Abba – it’ll display all the Abba that you have locally on your machine, and it’ll also display any Abba available in the Ubuntu One cloud, and then also it will – and I’m not quite sure if this is going to land at release, or just after – but basically it’ll also allow you to access all the Abba that’s available on the Amazon Music Store or on the Ubuntu One Music Store, so I can purchase that directly within the same Lens.

“Once purchased that music will be made available through to Ubuntu One Cloud so I can stream that music to my local Banshee player on Ubuntu or I can play it on my iPhone or on my Android device, or however I choose to listen to my music. So, that represents a breakdown of where my music is available, how I access this music – so basically we’re sort of elevating the content away from the operating system. We’re starting to see that in various real ways that we hope people will find convenient and useful.”

unity's new Music Lens for Unity

We couldn’t help but notice that the traditional Ubuntu mail client, Evolution, has been swapped out in favour of Mozilla’s Thunderbird. What prompted the change?

“The short answer: user preference. Basically, at each UDS – which is the developer summit we hold every six months – we run through a check of the default applications, and ask whether they’re the right default applications ongoing. We were aware that lots and lots of users were using Thunderbird as opposed to Evolution as their preferred email client, but that had certain inconveniences: for instance, if I click on an email address that’s in a document it’ll automatically start up Evolution, but most of our users seemed to be using Thunderbird.

“So, now, if I do the same thing it’ll start up Thunderbird, which is the email client I prefer. So, really, it wasn’t a case of fault with Evolution, it was really a case of preference for Thunderbird and the fact that reality seemed to be that most of our users were using Thunderbird over Evolution, so it seemed a natural switch. We’ll still make Evolution available through the Ubuntu Software Centre – I’m 90 per cent, 95 per cent sure of that – so it’s still a simple install for users who want to use it, but it’s not the default email client from 11.10 on.”

Are you concerned that the decision to remove Ubuntu Classic – which allowed Ubuntu 11.04 users to drop to a classic GNOME interface – in this release will get a negative reaction from the community?

“We’re concerned in a sense that we never want to do anything to deliberately lose users, and we’re obviously concerned about anything that people would have a negative reaction to – but we’ve been pretty open and consistent around the fact that we think that the new user interface for Ubuntu is the direction in which we’re moving. We know that that’s caused problems, let’s put it that way, for certain sections of users around Ubuntu.

“We brought out the two experiences – the default 3D experience, and then the GNOME experience – because we needed to give people the option. We’re more confident now that we don’t need to have that second option – the Unity 2D option is ready.

“What we said then, we continue to say: we are committed to Unity, we see Unity as – for a variety of reasons, and across a variety of form-factors – as the principle driving force for where Ubuntu is going, so it makes consistent sense for us, at least, to make Unity 2D the default secondary experience for users with graphic-restricted PCs.

“So, are we concerned? Yes. Do we hope that people will come with us? Yes. Are we going to change our minds on that? No. We know it’s an argument that we have to win, we know it’s an argument we have to win over time, we know it’s an argument we’re not going to win with absolutely everybody, but we think it’s the right thing to do and this is consistent with that decision.”

“The Dash has become much more mature in this release.”

Canonical has been very vocal about its support for the ARM architecture in the past – how is that project progressing?

“With this release, we’re releasing a tech preview of Ubuntu Server for ARM as well – Ubuntu Server 11.10 will be available on the ARM architecture for the first time, I think, any general-purpose software system has been available as a server technology, so that’s a very significant feature.

“We’ve done a lot of work to make the LAMP stack available on the ARM server product, so there are real applications for people to run and test out the applicability of ARM for data-centre use. We’ve done work to make virtualisation container technology available on ARM, which allows us to make OpenStack or Ubuntu Cloud available on ARM for the first time.

“There’s a lot of firsts in there on the server side. It is a tech preview, there’s a limited range of architectures available out there – so it’s not for everyone, put it that way. We’re not expecting production on these devices for some time, but ourselves and ARM are extremely excited that we’re starting to see real movement over there.

“On the client side, we going to start seeing ARM devices appear like netbooks – we’ll start seeing those running Ubuntu pretty soon. There isn’t a legacy of applications out there that have been in the market for as long as an x86 PC-type experience, but that work is ongoing. There are, obviously, areas where it makes sense to port applications across to ARM, and it’s a case of the industry deciding which ones make the most sense to focus on.”

Ubuntu has long been made available as alpha and beta versions for community testing before each version gets an official release. How important is the community feedback in the development of the distribution?

“Well, it’s hugely important – that’s why we do it. I can’t characterise how important it is, but as you know we have an alpha programme which is out very soon after the release of the previous product, we have an extended beta programme, we have many, many, many thousands of participants in that – the bug reports are probably the most essential part of making sure that our stability is right, and the features are working.

“It’s certainly something that our development teams pay huge attention to, the entire community pays huge attention to. It’ll become even more important with the next release, which is the 12.04 release, which is all about stability and precision as Mark [Shuttleworth] announced. So, the beta programme, the extended beta programme, the entire development process which you could call a beta programme – it’s what Ubuntu is about, it’s how we crowdsource and how we make sure that the product is quality is by getting feedback around where we’ve fallen down and to try and fix it.”

Thanking Carr for his time, we ask him if he has a message he’d like to pass on to our readership. “It’s not for me to lecture people about how they should or shouldn’t react to releases,” he explains, “but I think that they should understand that what we’re trying to do.

“The best of our efforts, and what we talk about all the time, is basically ‘how do we get free software into the hands of more people?’ We take decisions around interface design, product design and application integration, but they’re all designed for a single purpose: to put more free software into the hands of more people.”

It’s clear from his words that it’s a topic Carr feels passionate about, and one he believes is fully supported by his employer. “While we may disagree in terms of tactics,” he admits wryly, “the strategy is shared between us and the broader community in open source and elsewhere.”

Ubuntu 11.10 ‘Oneiric Ocelot’ is a launch which Carr and his colleagues is hoping will win back support lost during the transition to Unity with 11.04, and will be followed in April next year with the company’s latest Long Term Support – LTS – release, Ubuntu 12.04 ‘Precise Pangolin.’

Read out our review of Ubuntu 11.10