For a long time, the Ubuntu family has had three members--Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu (sorry Edubuntu; we're not counting you).  But that may change, with a new project, Lubuntu, vying for official endorsement by Canonical.  Here's a look at Lubuntu, and thoughts on what its future may hold.

The Lubuntu project, which was established a year ago as a community endeavor, aims to create a lightweight Linux distribution based on Ubuntu.  Towards this end, it uses the LXDE desktop environment in combination with the Openbox window manager to keep the demand on system resources low.

Testing Lubuntu

Hoping to see for myself what Lubuntu was all about, I downloaded a recently released live image of the distribution, based on Lucid Lynx alpha 2, and booted it up in VirtualBox.

Once I got past a buggy boot--which was to be expected, since Lucid Lynx remains far from stable--I was presented with a clean desktop and a relatively attractive interface, given the low hardware requirements that the Lubuntu developers are working with.  Here's a look:

Lubuntu desktop

I wouldn't call these icons and color scheme unreasonably gorgeous, and the theme looks a little too techno-geeky for my tastes, but it's still a lot prettier than Windows XP.

Exploring Lubuntu's application stack, I discovered that most of the software that comes installed by default diverges from that of regular Ubuntu.  Lubuntu ships with Firefox, Pidgin, Transmission and Synaptic, but the similarities end there.

It uses wicd as its connection manager (although that's set to be replaced with NetworkManager and nm-applet), Sylpheed for email, Abiword for word processing and SMPlayer for video playback.  A list of the application stack in its entirety is available here.

While Lubuntu's application stack may be unfamiliar to most users of normal Ubuntu, it nonetheless appears pretty complete, with most basic functionality covered.  Utilities for configuring the system are a little thin, and it lacks a complete office suite (Abiword is great for word processing, but it doesn't do presentations or spreadsheets like OpenOffice), but it would satisfy the needs of most computer users.  And more software, of course, is only an apt-get away.

Joining the Ubuntu family?

The obvious competitor for Lubuntu's niche is Xubuntu, an official Ubuntu flavor based on the Xfce desktop environment and designed for less powerful or older hardware.

I've always liked Xubuntu, and Xfce in general, but I've never been overly impressed with its performance.  It's a bit lighter than regular Ubuntu and Gnome, but it's never blown me away with its speed.  When I need a truly lightweight system for use on old hardware, I go with (now apparently defunct) Flubuntu, which uses Fluxbox for its desktop environment.

But there's hope that Lubuntu will deliver where Xubuntu has failed by providing a truly lightweight version of Ubuntu.  Linux Magazine found last fall that Lubuntu uses only about half as much memory as Xubuntu when installed to hard disk.  That's a big improvement.

Moreover, I was able to get Lubuntu to boot--into the live environment, no less--and run reliably with as few as 128 megabytes of RAM allocated in VirtualBox.  That's also encouraging.

The bottom line

A lot of work remains to be done on Lubuntu to make it stable and bring it up to speed with the other Ubuntu flavors.  But so far, it's looking very impressive and may finally provide the truly modern and functional, yet lightweight, distribution that many Ubuntu users have been looking for for years.

And one last thought: the developers should think of a name that smacks less of "luser"...