The new Ubuntu Linux's five best features

The forthcoming version of Ubuntu Linux, Lucid Lynx, has just gone beta, and it's going to be the most important Ubuntu release in years. I say that not just because it brings numerous important changes to this most popular of Linux distributions, but because Ubuntu 10.04 is the next LTS (Long Term Support) edition and, as such, is going to be supported for paying desktop customers for three years and for corporate server users for five years. In other words, this is the edition that's going to make or break Ubuntu's parent company Canonical's business future.

What will this future look like? Based on my quick look at the beta, the main thrust of this redesign is to make it as friendly as possible to people who aren't already Linux desktop users.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, has been laying down the law on what's going into Ubuntu 10.04. As Shuttleworth said in a discussion over some major changes in Ubuntu's graphical design, "This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But, we are not voting on design decisions." As my compadre Brian Proffitt pointed out in ITworld, "Shuttleworth is in the right here. Ubuntu and a vast majority of free and open source software projects, including the Linux kernel, have never been democracies. They are meritocracies, and any member of a community that thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. "

With so much riding on this release of Ubuntu, I think this was an excellent time for Shuttleworth to have re-emphasized this point. This edition isn't so much about being popular to fans, it's about putting Ubuntu's best foot forward to new paying customers in the months and years to come.

What are Canonical and Ubuntu bringing to its users this time? Here's my list of what I think are going to be Ubuntu's 10.04's best new features.

1. A manual

Yes, I'm serious. It's been ages since anyone included a manual with their software. The result has been a thriving third-party business in user books, and a lot of confused users. While it's certainly true that you can find almost any answer to your Linux questions at such sites as LinuxQuestions or, for Ubuntu specifically, the Ubuntu Forums, you still have to dig around for them. That's fine for people like me or for power users, but most people just want to use their computer with as little trouble as possible. An early version of the manual is available for download in PDF.

Sexy? No. But it's this kind of dull-yet-vital addition that can make Ubuntu much more attractive to the larger community of computer users who are still barely aware of Linux as a desktop platform.

2. Social by default

If manuals are from the 1980s, then Ubuntu 10.04's social networking on the default desktop is 2010 all the way. Lucid Lynx will let you connect with multiple social networks right from the desktop. Behind the scenes, what makes this work is a program called Gwibber. It currently supports Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Identi.ca, Jaiku, Twitter and RSS feeds. While you can use it by itself, the preferred front-end is MeMenu. These programs give you a one-stop set of windows on your desktop for all your social networks.

The Gwibber/MeMenu pair is still a little rough around the edges, but I expect it to be feature complete and polished by the time Lucid Lynx is scheduled to ship, Apr. 29. If it isn't, expect to see Ubuntu 10.04 delayed until it is ready for prime time.

3. New desktop theme

Ubuntu's core interface is going to remain GNOME 2.28. Canonical is not going to fool around with an early version of GNOME 3, which has been delayed until September 2010, except as an option in this update.

That's not to say that the interface hasn't changed; it has. After years of the autumnal browns and oranges of the 'Human' theme, Canonical is switching to a brighter and lighter purple and orange theme. They've also made other minor changes, all with the aim of making Ubuntu's desktop more welcoming.

Does it work? It depends on who you talk to. It hasn't made that much of a difference to me. But I know that the Canonical design team has put plenty of work into making the desktop friendlier to new users. I'm interested in seeing how this plays out.

4. Easier to use applications

When Canonical decided not to include GIMP, the popular, powerful, but complex photo-editing program, in Lucid Lynx, more than a few people were upset. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is, after all, a very important open-source program. Canonical, however, has decided that its desktop and its programs need to be as easy to use as possible.

Because of that design decision, you can expect to see Lucid Lynx's default software to be, not the most complete or powerful, but the easiest to use. So for CD burning, the baked-in program will be Brasero instead of GnomeBaker, you'll get PiTiVi instead of Cinelerra for video editing. You get the idea.

If you want more full-featured applications, Ubuntu has also made getting new programs much easier with its Ubuntu Software Center. Canonical's plan seems to be to ease users into Linux and then make it simple for them to move on to stronger, more full featured programs.

5. Faster boot

Lucid Lynx still doesn't boot as fast as Fedora, but they're trying to make the operating system move even faster from a cold start to a working system. The goal is to get Ubuntu's booting down to ten seconds by using Upstart, which replaces the ancient init daemon for starting boot tasks and services.

Put this all together, and you get a faster Linux that goes out of its way to make life easier for new users. While I'm still toying with the beta at this point, it looks like the end result may be the most new-user-friendly Linux distribution in quite some time — and, better still from Canonical's viewpoint, a Linux that will also be solid enough to carry the company from being the Linux community's darling to also being a commercial success.

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