The latest and greatest release of Ubuntu -- 11.04, or "Natty Narwhal" -- is nearly upon us. To get a sense of how the new version situates Ubuntu and the rest of the open source community going forward, I recently spoke with Canonical VP Steve George. Here's what he had to say about the new release and more:

For starters, anyone who reads Linux blogs at least once in a while knows by now that Natty's major claim to fame is the Unity desktop interface, which will become the default in new installations. Traditional GNOME will remain available as an option, at least for this release cycle, as will a 2D version of Unity catered to users whose hardware doesn't support the video acceleration demanded by the default interface.

Asked about the motivations behind the switch to Unity, George stressed simplicity and ease-of-deployment. "The direction for Unity is to try to simplify the user interface," he explained. In addition, he pointed to the increasing importance of mobile phone interfaces, which Unity parallels in many respects, as a "reference point" for user expectations -- even as he cautioned that, at least for now, Canonical has no plans to try to compete on mobile hardware.

When the discussion turned to the friction between the GNOME and Unity communities which has emerged over the course of the Natty development cycle, George predicted that both desktop interfaces would continue to exist as important projects for a long while to come. They are competitors, he pointed out, but also collaborators -- a relationship which, surprisingly enough, isn't contradictory in the open source community, where projects can share ideas and code even as they vie for users and prestige.

Natty as a Preview

George stressed as well while talking about Unity that Ubuntu 11.04, which represents the halfway point between the last long-term support (LTS) release in April 2010 and the next one in April 2012, is an opportunity for users to experiment with new technology more than a mandate for immediate change.

Large organizations that deploy Ubuntu on their desktops, he noted, tend to stick with LTS releases, and can therefore use Natty to preview the Unity interface without having to undertake any major overhauls. Home users, in my experience, mostly fall into the same category; the geeks among them will upgrade to 11.04 and experiment with Unity, while a majority of users will continue to run GNOME for at least the next year.

Different User Spheres

Speaking of different groups of users, George also pointed out that the new Ubuntu release marks an increasingly strong distinction between qualitatively distinct groups of users, which Canonical aims to recognize and address. As he sees it, "there's a wide range of people using Ubuntu, and a wide range of usage scenarios," ranging from corporations running Ubuntu on their desktops, to server administrators deploying only cloud-based instances, to owners of non-traditional hardware devices.

All of these groups form important segments of the Ubuntu community, but as their needs and ideals grow increasingly distinct, Canonical is working to diversify the resources available to each of these different spheres. That change is reflected, for instance, on the Ubuntu website, which now has a prominent link for business alongside the traditional tabs for netbook and desktop users.

The Cloud

Last but certainly not least, the cloud is a vitally important focal point of this Ubuntu release. Beyond changes to Ubuntu server on this front, the most exciting cloud-based feature for this recycle is the ability to preview Ubuntu instances via the cloud on Amazon Web Services. This offering comes on the heels of the cancellation of Ubuntu's long-running ShipIt program earlier this month, and while the new service may not appease all users upset about that change, it will make Ubuntu easier to test for most people around the world with broadband Internet connections.

According to a Canonical press release, the AWS-based preview service, set to debut April 28 (the same day Ubuntu 11.04 is officially released) will support Ubuntu server. George indicated, however, that Canonical developers were working on making Ubuntu desktop instances available for preview via AWS as well, and that their efforts may be complete by next week. Stay tuned.

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