New versions of Ubuntu Linux are released every six months and most of these are incremental steps forward as Ubuntu tries to evolve into a mainstream desktop operating system. Some have been more exciting than others but on the whole these six-monthly releases are more evolutionary than revolutionary.
Natty Narwhal, otherwise known as Ubuntu 11.04, could be the exception to this trend when it is released in April 2011. Natty is already being primed as a significant step forward for Ubuntu with a enough changes to the release to make it noticeably different to previous releases. Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth has been making bold decisions about the direction Ubuntu will take.
The big change for Natty will be in the interface. Tired of waiting around for the Gnome team to finalise its Gnome 3 interface, Ubuntu Natty will ship with the Unity interface. Unity is Ubuntu’s desktop interface designed originally for netbooks. The layout of Unity is quite different to the traditional Gnome desktop and is likely to make an equal share of Ubuntu users happy and unhappy. Not everyone will be pleased about the decision to ship Unity but it is a bold move that could pay off for Ubuntu if it allows the operating system to establish a unique place in the market.
Also on the desktop, or rather under the hood of the desktop, Natty Narwhal will use the new Wayland graphics system. This new system for rendering the desktop and applications is widely regarded as the correct way forward for Linux desktops but with a long history of the now-aged X Window system many users are understandably unhappy. The X Window system is now decades old and was created in an age that preceded today’s shiny, blinged-out desktop graphics. Wayland is leaner, meaner and custom made for creating ever-improving desktop graphics. Again, Shuttleworth has been bold in running with Wayland so early on, but already other Linux makers are planning to do the same.
Unity and Wayland are the big changes planned for Natty Narwhal in April but there are many other changes as well, some for developers and some for users.
For application developers there are a number of things worth watching out for in Natty Narwhal. Among these are a new UbuntuOne API. The interface will allow developers to build-in application support for UbuntuOne (Canonical’s cloud storage service). UbuntuOne already synchronises notes, bookmarks and folders but could in future be an all-in-one synchronisation tool.
Natty will also see the start of a new gesture-based interface. Designed for a new generation of touch screens this gesture language will be a mainstay of future Ubuntu releases. Work in this area is still new but Shuttleworth says the plan is to develop an entire gesture “language” rather than a few simple commands.
Changes to the Ubuntu Software Centre in Natty will allow users to donate money to developers of particular applications as well as view user reviews and ratings for software. The move is the first step towards a fully-fledged software marketplace for Ubuntu.
Linaro, a multi-organisation project to co-ordinate and improve Linux on mobile developments will also feature big in the Natty timeline. Among these will be a specific release for ARM processors. The Linaro project will also work closely with Ubuntu during the Natty release cycle to test its multimedia features which could ultimately blend into future Ubuntu releases.
Ubuntu Natty Narwhal is scheduled for release on 28 April 2011. A very early, alpha test release of Natty Narwhal is already available.
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