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What's new about Ubuntu GNU/Linux? That is always the question that arises when the six-monthly release takes place and this time, with 11.10, the answer is probably best encapsulated by the project itself.

The Ubuntu project site proclaims "Hey, good looking!" and nothing could be more true - most of the work since the last release, which saw the introduction of the Unity desktop, has gone into refining and beautifying the desktop and all its appendages. Ubuntu 11.10, aka Oneiric Ocelot (dreamy wildcat) now looks very good, has nice fonts and is easy on the eye.

This is in keeping with the philosophy of Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth who has constantly expressed his admiration for the Mac, its slick and smart appearance, and the fact that most things work on the platform.

I expect that in future releases we will see the necessary codecs for DVD  playback and to handle MP3s also in the default install; as money comes in, it will pay the licensing fees for those codecs to be present.

The focus has now changed to the business user. Along with this, the Ubuntu One service is being improved so that one has a cloud offering from the same vendor; remember, Apple has its iCloud. The business user who wants to take his/her work anywhere can always store it in the cloud and access it without the need to lug a laptop back and forth.

Even the man or woman who does not want to splurge, has some cloud storage provided free. It's an interesting tactic at a time when remote storage does not seem to be getting the best press.

Shuttleworth's move to Unity also shows his ambitions in the tablet market. Ubuntu now has the type of interface which suits a mobile phone and a tablet. With a rash of devices appearing every month, there is a market waiting to be captured; those who use Ubuntu at work or home would like nothing better than to be able to use the same system on their tablets.

Ubuntu is now seven years old. It is anyone's guess as to how impatient the bean-counters at Canonical, its parent company, are becoming as the releases arrive one after the other and the red ink still shows on the company's books.

Ubuntu isn't yet even balancing the books; if it had reached that stage, you can bet that Shuttleworth would be trumpeting it all over the web. You see, the I-told-you-so factor is very much in play; he has been quite stubborn about his project, launching it a time when nobody in his or her right mind would have thought that the world needed one more GNU/Linux distribution. He has a point to prove and he would dearly love to be right.

Over the seven years, Shuttleworth has clashed with orthodoxy on occasion, and with free software supporters that much more. His bid to co-ordinate the release schedules of major distributions failed; so too his bid to convince developers that his concept of copyright assignment ("sign over the code to my company") was the right one.

Arguments over the latter have often been bitter and Shuttleworth's tactic has always been to withdraw gradually from the battlefield when a struggle gets bogged down and shows no sign of being resolved in his favour or even by a midway compromise between the camps at war.

Over the next three years, I expect to see a few more bits and bobs added on to Ubuntu as paid options; but a fully functional Ubuntu is unlikely to be anything but a free download. Shuttleworth knows to what extent he can annoy the Ubuntu user.

The project now claims an userbase of 20 million without specifying where this figure comes from. If anything, Shuttleworth has shown repeatedly that he can carry the userbase with him; it may be less and less the traditional GNU/Linux user and more and more a newer breed, but then one user is as good as another.

There will, however, be a day of reckoning, a day on which Shuttleworth either proclaims triumph or else hands over what he can of the codebase to anyone who wants to run with it, and acknowledges that it was an interesting experiment. Three more years will, I'm pretty sure, bring us to that day.



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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the sitecame into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.


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