Hardly a day goes by in the tech industry without some software package or other getting updated, but the widely celebrated release of Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" this week has been no ordinary milestone.
Rather, perhaps more than any other release in the history of Canonical's popular Linux distribution, this one marks the beginning of a new direction for the open source operating system--one its makers hope will bring it into the hands of more new users than ever before.
The decision to adopt Ubuntu's new Unity interface, in particular, was nothing if not controversial, and reviews of it have been mixed so far. A day after Natty's official release, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth wrote a blog post explaining that and some of the other decisions that were made on the way to version 11.04.
'The Biggest Leap Forward'
"We set out to bring the joys and freedoms and innovation and performance and security that have always been part of the Linux platform, to a consumer audience," Shuttleworth wrote. "And yesterday marked the biggest leap forward in that mission that Ubuntu has ever taken, because in addition to the work we always do to make sure that the world's best free software is polished and integrated, we brought something new to the very core of the user experience of the free platform: Unity."
In designing Unity, "we chose to be both humble and bold," Shuttleworth explained. "Humble, because we have borrowed consciously from the work of other successful platforms, like Windows and MacOS. We borrowed what worked best, but then we took advantage of the fact that we are unconstrained by legacy and can innovate faster than they can, and took some bold leaps forward."
Natty Narwhal's category indicators, Dash, overlay scrollbars and other innovations will likely be emulated elsewhere, Shuttleworth predicted, in both free and proprietary software. So, Shuttleworth hopes, will its documented design process, which included comprehensive testing with real users and evolving the software based on those findings.
Community as 'Killer Feature'
It is the Ubuntu community, however--including all those who have worked on derivatives including Kubuntu and Lubuntu, for example--that remains the software's "killer feature," Shuttleworth wrote.
"The fact that so many people recognise that their time, energy and expertise can have the biggest possible impact when expressed through Ubuntu is what makes their individual contributions so much more valuable," he explained. "By recognising that it's not just about bits, or licenses, or artwork, or documentation, or advocacy, or support, or assurance, or services, but that it's about the whole of those in synthesis, we make something different to what the world has ever seen before."
A Compelling Windows Alternative
As for Natty Narwhal, I haven't yet had a chance to play around with it or Unity in any detailed way, but I'm looking forward to testing it out. Based on what I've seen so far--check out our slideshow and detailed pre-release report--I think it's well-poised to draw a significant portion of users away from Windows.
Have you taken Natty and/or Unity for a spin? Don't forget Canonical is offering commitment-free trials in the cloud as well as standard downloads. If you've checked the new release out, please share your impressions in the comments.