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What's New in Ubuntu 7.10? (a.k.a. Gutsy Gibbon)

by Brian DeLacey

I just received an email from a friend: "Over the weekend my laptop died - man, what a hassle! Have you heard a single good word about Vista? Every machine comes with Vista and I really don't want it." Should he consider Ubuntu 7.10?

The Ubuntu Story

Ubuntu started out as a software project in 2004. A small group of developers organized their talents and efforts to create a Linux-based distribution, including application software suitable for a desktop environment. Eventually, the effort came to be known as Ubuntu, with the following ideals:

  • Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change, and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.

  • Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.

  • Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability.

Since then, the Ubuntu community has expanded and added developers and users from around the world. It's a great bunch of people. As just one example, the Massachusetts Ubuntu Local Community (LoCo) team, an all-volunteer group, recently organized an InstallFest at the MIT Media Lab. More than thirty people—from remarkably diverse backgrounds and varied interests—brought their laptops and desktops of all shapes, sizes, and vintages to install and discuss Ubuntu. By all accounts it was a big success. The Chicago area LoCo is holding a similar event on October 21st. Another group is working on introducing Ubuntu to college students and faculty.

MIT Media Lab Ubuntu Installfest
MIT Media Lab Ubuntu Installfest, October 13, 2007
- Photo by Brian DeLacey

Ubuntu now comes in five flavors: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, and Gobuntu. The development name for 7.10 is Gutsy Gibbon. This continues a trend of two word code names based on an animal and a catchy descriptor. The first release, Warty Warthog, shipped in October 2004. The ship date for version 7.10 is October 18th. Here's a quick summary of what will be shipping:

  • Ubuntu: Ubuntu with the Gnome Desktop Environment

  • Kubuntu: Ubuntu with the K Desktop Environment

  • Edubuntu: Ubuntu for Education

  • Xubuntu: Ubuntu with the XFce Desktop Environment

  • Gobuntu: Ubuntu with no proprietary components; strictly following the "free" in free software

  • Ubuntu Server Edition: Ubuntu for servers (This article concentrates on the desktop versions.)

Each shares a number of attributes. First off, they are all free-of-charge, community-developed projects. Secondly, every six months new laptop/desktop releases are packaged and shipped. Third, an elegant graphical installer makes it easy to get installed and running fast. Fourth, the resulting installation is much more than just a traditional operating system—it is a complete operating platform, with great software for word processing, spreadsheets, Internet, graphics, and much more.

The Rise of Ubuntu

All Ubuntu releases have a common code heritage: they pull a huge amount of code from Debian. Established in 1993, Debian is the wise old great grandparent of Linux/GNU distributions. In April 2007, Debian reached a major milestone with version 4.0, with more than 18,000 free software packages running on eleven platforms.

Ubuntu enjoyed a rapid rise in adoption. Gerry Carr, the Marketing Manger for Canonical, told me that the United States is the largest Ubuntu user base by far, with Germany second, followed by the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil clustered at third. Carr described some of the new adopters as individual users appearing in IT departments, In addition, Carr said "I just meet more and more people whose machine broke or the license expired and then don't want to spend $400 on MS Windows and Office. What often happens instead? A friend comes around and installs Ubuntu on their computer to browse the Web and do email. We see lots of people putting it on their parents' PCs."

Walt Mossberg, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and has an active web presence, concluded in a September 2007 WSJ article that Ubuntu wasn't quite ready for mainstream use: "Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users." In contrast, one person who attended the recent Installfest at the MIT Media Lab put it simply: "Ubuntu is ready." Who is right? I will say this: I've been using Ubuntu since its earliest releases and the 7.10 release is easily the best yet. (For the record, it took me considerably longer to set up WiFi on a new laptop I bought with Vista than it took me to get wireless working on a laptop recently installed with Ubuntu.)

Outside the MIT Media Lab at the start of the Massachussetts
Ubuntu LoCo Installfest (From left to right: Brian DeLacey, Martin
Owens, and Sara Abbott) - Photo by Lynn DeLacey

Distrowatch keeps track of the number of hits per day for the top 100 distributions. Debian has remained in the top 10 during each of the past five years, Ubuntu didn't even make the list until it appeared as #1 in 2005, where it has stayed ever since with activity in the range of 2,500 or more hits per day. I've been told that approximately six million people use Ubuntu on a daily basis, although some people place the usage level as high as 12 million. One thing is very clear, Ubuntu is no longer merely a niche software product running on geek machines; it's become a full blown operating platform.

Ancestral Home

Ubuntu's development and distribution philosophy is built around the concept of community. Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, described the meaning of the Zulu word ubuntu: "In the old days, when we were young, a traveler through our country would stop at the village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food...That is one aspect of ubuntu...Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question, therefore, is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around be able to improve. These are the important things in life. If one can do that, you have done something very important which will be appreciated."

Ubuntu, as a software initiative, began as the brainchild of South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth who was a Debian Developer and Apache maintainer in the 1990s. Shuttleworth sold his company to Verisign in 1999 for more than a half-billion dollars. In 2005, he invested $10 million to establish the Ubuntu Foundation. Shuttleworth, who considers himself both privileged and lucky for his acquired fortune, has already given away half his wealth to charity.

Canonical Ltd., another company started by Shuttleworth, is a primary financial and resource sponsor of Ubuntu. However, they are not alone. Recently, it was noted that Sun is the largest single contributor to Debian. Never before has free, open-source software seen this kind of directed investment.

So, What's in the New Release?

Ubuntu 7.10 adds highly attractive user interface elements with the inclusion of Compiz Fusion technology. This is instantly cool demo-ware. If you want to get a sense of what this functionality can do, visit Google Video and you will find impressively choreographed demonstrations by virtuosos of Compiz Fusion demonstrating their jazz of "Advanced Desktop Effects."

Not only do these interface improvements look nice, but they can also help you productively manage multiple desktops and workspaces with numerous 3D effects. These have been wish list items for some time, and they have finally arrived. These effects require newer video cards for you to get the full benefit, but they degrade gracefully on older hardware lacking the required graphics horsepower.

Printer installation also works much better. I have to confess, this is actually the first release of Ubuntu that I have ever successfully printed to paper, and now it's almost too easy. Ubuntu even politely notifies you if the ink is low, something that has been a more gruesome task to discover on other platforms. Gnash, a free Flash-compatibility plug-in, will be attractive to many. Automated Firefox plugins are a major step forward in Linux-based usability, while still working within a robust security framework.

Each of the official derivative releases includes some unique work of its own:

Kubuntu includes the same kinds of desktop improvements we see in Ubuntu. In addition, they've added the Dolphin file manager and improved desktop search. These features are getting an early release in advance of the December 2007 ship date for KDE 4. The LiveCD installed easily on my 700M laptop, producing an attractive desktop and a chance to play with the release.

Edubuntu promises faster thin clients with the added used of compression technology for images. Additional improvements help the educational market make the most of older hardware. The login manager has been re-engineered for improved usability.

Xubuntu, by design, is intended to be a slim, light release that can work on older, underpowered hardware. It's not the kind of release where you'd expect loads of new features. I found this release easy to install (it did the best job of any Ubuntu release in recognizing my finnicky SR1620NX video card.) Reports suggest it is faster than previous releases.

A wild card in this release is Gobuntu. Everything is new, since it's a first-time product introduction. There are no restricted files in this release—so if your video card doesn't work with an open source driver you may be completely out of luck. This is seen "as the test bed for developing a user-friendly operating system with no compromise in terms of the open source philosophy." This is essentially a software free-for-all that can go anywhere and do anything without restriction to license or application.

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