Every time I look at my netbook I keep thinking I've got a new machine, and an expensive one at that, but I haven't, I just installed the new Ubuntu 9.10 (code named Karmic) Netbook Remix on it. The upgrade cost me nothing, not even £25, and I've still got an operating system with designer good looks, a new user interface that even more elegant and user friendly than before. Installing it is easy and everything just seems to work out of the box. The changes in this new release of Ubuntu though are more than just skin deep, and show signs of the cloud based future ahead for computing.
I'm hoping to have a look at the server edition of Karmic with the Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud in the future, but up to until now I've just been using the Netbook Remix (since the beta). The most noticeable difference is the redesigned user interface, the right hand section of the interface showing folders and network locations has been merged with the program categories on the right. This has released a lot of space, which is especially noticeable on a netbook with a 7” screen like the Asus EEE PC 701. Everything looks a lot less squashed. It is still really difficult to add applets to the top panel though, which is a bit of a shame.
The graphics have all been redesigned and look very modern and stylish (you can keep up to date with the Ubuntu design team by following @ubuntudesigners on Twitter). The default background to the Netbook Remix interface is a sort of brown and yellow pattern. The whole brown colour scheme in Ubuntu is something that can be a bit controversial, but I quite like it. I've been staring at blue desktops for twenty years, so it's good to have a design that is a bit different. However, what they have done here is to temper the whole brown theme slightly, so it might be a bit more palatable to those who weren't keen on it in the past. This version of the interface offers more options for customisation, if you don't like the background you can change it for one of the nice photo backgrounds supplied, or your own picture. You can also change the colour scheme according to your tastes.
The effects of the One Hundred Paper Cuts project are visible in this release of Ubuntu, the aim of that project was to remove small faults that were not serious faults as such but delivered a less than perfect experience for the user. I noticed that everything on the two netbooks I've it on, the Samsung NC10 and the Asus EEE PC 701 worked straight out of the box. This is probably an obscure thing to point out, but I really like the new sound control, it is much simpler, the version in older releases of Ubuntu had a multitude of confusing options to do with the different sound systems in Linux, now all of that has gone and the new options are much simpler. The new Ubuntu Software Centre is a great addition too and brings in the familiar “app store” idea, which will make it much easier for new users to get the most out of the Ubuntu machines.
Netbooks (and Nettops) are machines that are usually designed with the Internet, and Cloud Computing in mind. These influences are very strong in this version of Ubuntu, in this version Ubuntu One is included by default. This is an online storage service from Canonical, the commercial backers of Ubuntu. It some ways it is like Dropbox, you get a folder on your system which gets automatically synchronised with an online storage service. It is possible to hook more than one machine into the same account and this way you can easily keeps files synchronised between machines.
Ubuntu One has only just come out of a closed beta, and now has some new features. It can now synchronise bookmarks from Firefox, notes from Tomboy and contact information from the Evolution email client and make them available to you through a browser or on other machines you link to your account. I tried out the synchronised Tomboy notes, it was interesting, but you had to tell Tomboy to synchronise, it didn't do it automatically. I haven't tried the contact information feature, as I use Mozilla Thunderbird not Evolution. To be honest I think this would be much more useful if it could also synchronise with a mobile phone over the air (Google are getting near to being able to offer something similar). Canonical, who run Ubuntu One as a commercial service (a basic 2GB storage account is free, you can upgrade for a fee, also presumably why the server side of the service uses proprietary closed source code) is encouraging developers to make use of the service though (maybe using the interesting looking Quickly tool) so new and innovative uses may emerge. You can find out more about how Ubuntu works at: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuOne.
The Ubuntu Netbook Remix isn't the only option for netbooks in the new Karmic release. The Kubuntu project have released a technology preview of the Kubuntu Netbook Edition which features a very different interface to Ubuntu, one based more on the idea of Widgets (small programs that sit on a defined area of the desktop). The other is the Ubuntu Moblin Remix (below) based on the Moblin (MOBile LINux) project originally started by Intel for Intel Atom powered netbooks.
For years we have have had an application centric view of operating systems, icons mean programs, web applications, social networks and data are often secondary considerations. Systems like Moblin attempt to redefine the user interface to make these first class citizens of the desktop. In Moblin you are just as likely to see an icon representing a tweet from a friend, or a track on last.fm that they liked as an icon for an application. Interestingly, Dell have already begun shipping systems pre-installed with Ubuntu Moblin Remix. I'm hoping to be able to spend some time on getting to know these two new remixes soon and be able to blog about them properly.
Using Cloud based services for many people though has meant using web sites in a web browser, and many of these services are provided by Google, arguably the most important IT company in existence today (and if not that then tomorrow). Innovations like Google Wave have pushed the need for more powerful browsers, with arguably less capable products struggling to keep up. Now the browser is often the most important piece of software that is supplied on a Linux distribution. With a long term service (LTS) release coming up next April (the Lucid Lynx or Ubuntu 10.04), this is something that the Ubuntu developers might need to be careful of.
The current LTS release, 8.04 (Hardy) still has Firefox 3.0, a very capable browser but one that has been replaced. If the users of Ubuntu 10.04 are to get the most out of web applications they can't be expected to use the same version of Firefox for three years, they could miss out on features or entire applications. In Jaunty (Ubuntu 9.04) we had the Firefox 3.5 update made available, but it was called “Shiretoko” and didn't replace the default browser (Karmic has Firefox 3.5 as the default). I understand there are technical and stability reasons for this approach but for the end user I think it doesn't deliver the best solution and could put people off, I think it would be better to keep the browser up to date in all Ubuntu versions.
To sum up, Ubuntu 9.10 is a head turning, impressive Linux distribution that is built on the great progress that has been made by all of the contributors to Ubuntu, Debian (on which Ubuntu is based) and all of the upstream projects that make up Ubuntu over the last few years. The new design is superb, Ubuntu One shows a lot of promise and the new remix options offer exciting new computing experiences. There has never been a better time to try out Ubuntu, or to give it another go if you had a less than wonderful experience in the past.