Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal': The Final Countdown Begins

After months of breathless anticipation by Linux fans around the globe, Canonical's cutting-edge Ubuntu 11.04, or "Natty Narwhal," is slated to make its grand debut on the world's stage next Thursday.

Development of this newest release of the free Linux distribution has been watched more closely than has any other version of the open source operating system, it seems fair to say, fueled in large part by a number of status quo-busting decisions made by Canonical regarding the shape it would take.

"This release breaks new ground for Ubuntu by offering users a PC experience that is stylish and efficient," said Jane Silber, CEO of Canonical. "With this release Ubuntu will recruit an entirely new wave of users to free software. Ubuntu 11.04 is a high watermark for what has been achieved with open-source technologies for the everyday computer user."

I've already looked at several of the features we can expect to see in the new release. Earlier this week, however, I had a chance to speak with Canonical's Gerry Carr about what's coming down the pike. Let's just say this release could well turn out to be the game-changer Canonical hopes it will be.

All Eyes on Unity

"What we're trying to do is offer a genuine alternative way for people to see their computer," Carr told me. "Rather than play catch-up with proprietary operating systems, we want to give people a new way to use their PCs."

The software's new Unity interface is probably the most visible manifestation of that goal. Having first appeared in Ubuntu 10.10's Netbook Edition last fall, Unity is a multitouch-enabled alternative to previous versions' traditional GNOME interface that resembles the clutter-free look of many mobile operating systems.

For older PCs, Ubuntu will automatically determine if the included graphics card supports Unity. If it doesn't, the software will provide a "classic" experience instead--something users can also choose even if their hardware does support Unity.

For capable machines, however, Unity allows users to personalize their PC with free and paid apps in a way that's very similar to what's become standard in the smartphone and tablet arenas.

Indeed, "when we went into this effort, we looked around at people's preferences," Carr explained. "Smartphones and tablets have been a huge hit--especially how they use apps. Users want to choose their own apps and to make their own personal choices, and they want them to be easily discoverable."

Integrated Search

Another way in which Natty Narwhal differs from its predecessors is that search has been integrated directly into the main workings of the operating system, giving users an easier way to find the files, folders and applications they want to work on.

To illustrate that difference, Carr contrasted Google Docs with Microsoft Windows.

Illustration: Chip Taylor

"With a Windows PC, the burden of organization is on you," he explained. "You have to remember where you saved your files, etc. You're the librarian of your own PC."

Google Docs makes that process easier, he noted, and "we've taken the concept and applied it across all files and folders and apps."

Using Ubuntu's Dash feature, users need only enter a few letters into the top search bar and it will display a list in terms of those used today, yesterday and recently. If the user can't remember the name of a particular file, for instance, they can simply search by category instead.

"It gets away from the old files and folders concept," Carr explained. "That's still there, underneath, but an easier search process is overlaid on top of it. You can discover productivity gains very quickly."

A 'Non-interruptive Experience'

A big part of the goal behind Natty Narwhal is to provide users with what Carr calls a "non-interruptive experience."

Whereas Microsoft Windows Vista, for instance, "constantly interrupted you," he explains, Ubuntu aims to stay out of the user's way. Accordingly, when a new email or Twitter update arrives, for instance, a notification pops up in the top right hand of the screen, but it's up to users to decide if they want to react or keep on working.

The approach is actually borrowed from first player arcade games, Carr added. Specifically, in such games the player typically gets a "heads-up display" with key statistics like the number of bullets left or the number of opponents killed so far, but without interrupting the game in play.

Along similar lines is Natty Narwhal's integration of the media player into volume control, allowing users to do things like skip tracks or change albums, all from a single place.

A Preview for Businesses

For business users of Ubuntu, Carr views Natty Narwhal as a chance to get a preview of what's coming in the next Long Term Support (LTS) version. Ubuntu 10.04 is the most recent LTS version, and the next one will come out in April 2012.

Though most will probably stay on 10.04, Natty Narwhal offers considerable benefits for businesses, he added. Keyboard shortcuts in the new release, for instance, are "incredibly useful."

In general, the changes made in Natty Narwhal are "very intuitive," he explained, so "the learning curve is extremely minor." Nothing fundamental has changed on Ubuntu's back end, either, so it will be more a matter of getting used to the new front end.

Toward that end, in fact, another first in Natty Narwhal is that Canonical will soon offer one-hour free trials of the software in the cloud.

It's always been pretty easy to take Ubuntu and other Linux distributions for a free, no-commitment test drive, but the new capability--likely launching in early May, Carr said--will make it even easier.

Ubuntu-Certified Hardware

There are, of course, myriad other updates and improvements coming in Ubuntu 11.04 as well, including ratings and reviews in the Ubuntu Software Center and updates to both Ubuntu One and the server version of the software. Particularly useful for businesses, too, are Canonical's listings of server hardware that's been certified to work seamlessly with the software, Carr pointed out.

The list goes on and on. The bottom line, though, is that Natty Narwhal is arguably the Linux world's best effort so far to achieve widespread mainstream acceptance. Judging by what I've seen so far (check out our slideshow), I think it's going to be a winner.

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