Mark Shuttleworth recently outlined development goals for Ubuntu 9.10 ("Karmic Koala") set to be released in October 2009 as the successor to Ubuntu 9.04 ("Jaunty Jackalope").  The innovations planned for the Ubuntu 9.10 desktop, which is set for a major aesthetic makeover, look nice enough.  But is this the time to be placing looks before functionality?

Shuttleworth's vision for Ubuntu 9.10 includes the following:
  1. better integration with cloud-computing environments, and the simplification of cloud creation using open-source tools on Ubuntu Server Edition
  2. faster boot
  3. seamless netbook support
  4. taking advantage of kernel mode setting to make the boot process and virtual terminals shinier and snappier
  5. sprucing up the desktop by giving it a prettier default theme
I'm all on board for making it easy to use Ubuntu servers as hosts for clouds, and am eager to see the specifics of the plan when developers lay them out.

Shorter boot time would also be nice, although I thought that was supposed to be one of the chief focuses of Ubuntu 9.04--and one that, thanks to the advent of ext4, has been largely achieved.  But I suppose there's still some tweaking that could be done to make Upstart more efficient.

Absolutely hassle-free netbook support is critical.  It's embarrassing to see posts on the Ubuntu forums where people who bought netbooks with Ubuntu pre-installed complain of broken wireless drivers, for example.  Unless Ubuntu wants to squander the immense opportunities presented by the netbook market, it needs to make sure the netbook experience is seamless for everyone.

Looks vs. brains

I'm a bit warier of Shuttleworth's focus on a better-looking Ubuntu. While making the boot manager and default theme more attractive isn't necessarily a bad idea, I wonder if featuring it as one of the focal points of the next Ubuntu development cycle is really appropriate.

Kernel mode setting opens up new opportunities to developers, but I don't think it's going to revolutionize the lives of many end-users.  After all, I use Ubuntu every day but haven't seen the boot splash in weeks, because I rarely shut down my computer, preferring instead to suspend.  I don't think I'm in a minority.

And while the snappier virtual-terminal switching provided by kernel mode setting is nice, how many normal people still use virtual terminals (the screens accessed by pressing control-alt-F[1-6])?  I certainly don't, unless I want to remember what DOS was like.

I've long found the default Ubuntu desktop theme a bit drab, but that reflects personal preference more than anything else.  It also has never mattered much to me, since I can easily download art that's more to my liking from art.gnome.org or gnome-look.org.

Similarly, users who don't like the default wallpaper in Ubuntu will be able to find a new one easily enough.  Figuring out how to make unsupported wireless cards work or fix broken screen resolutions, on the other hand, is not quite as simple.  Resolving issues like these should be at the top of the Ubuntu development list.  Maybe the default theme deserves a touch-up, but don't Ubuntu developers have more important things to do than debate the aesthetic merits of earth tones?

Conclusion

The specifics of Ubuntu 9.10 won't emerge till the developer conference in May, so extensive criticism at this point is unwarranted.  But I hope Shuttleworth and Canonical don't make the mistake of giving looks priority over what really matters.

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