The great thing about Linux distro development, when compared with OS X or Vista, is that the whole process is transparent. You can see at any stage what the developers are planning, and even download the latest build of your favourite distribution.
Ubuntu is no different, and the next version, out in October, is going to be called the Karmic Koala. You can generally get an inclination of what Ubuntu is going to feel like from the name, and we think the Karmic Koala is going to be more of an interim release than a major overhaul.
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Unless you happen to run a data centre, that is. "A good Koala knows how to see the wood for the trees, even when her head is in the clouds," said Mark Shuttleworth with the announcement of Koala. "Ubuntu aims to keep free software at the forefront of cloud computing by embracing the APIs of Amazon EC2, and making it easy for anybody to set up their own cloud using entirely open tools."
So, our Koala 's going to have his head in the clouds. And more importantly, it's only going to be of limited use to normal desktop users.
Just in case you're still using a dial-up modem, the cloud is the latest craze in online metaphors. If you use Gmail, for example, your email is in the cloud. If you use Google Docs, so are your documents (if anyone asks where your data is, it helps if you wave your hands nonchalantly at the sky).
As Shuttleworth sees it, data is moving increasingly away from our home folders and USB sticks and into central repositories run by companies like Google, and he wants Ubuntu to be at the heart of this revolution. This isn't a battle for your desktop, it a battle for enterprise-grade computing.
The big new cloud-facing feature is called Eucalyptus. It's a computing platform that enables you to dynamically scale applications across a network of transparent computers running in the cloud on your own hardware. One of the most popular cloud computing services is Amazon's EC2.
Customers can choose the capacity and capabilities of their virtual hardware running on EC2 before farming out tasks to the super stretchy platform. It's incredibly scalable and relatively cheap, and adding Eucalyptus to Ubuntu means that this capability is built into the operating system, and gives any data centre the ability to either create its own cloud, or streamline their use of EC2.
Not only will this bring all the advantages of scale and power to your own apps, it also has the potential to save on your electricity bills, as power use should be virtually zero when there's no activity on the cloud.
Embedding virtual machine technology into server-grade distributions has been a tactic used by both Novell and Red Hat, and it's interesting to see Canonical adopt a different but related technology for its distribution. And while this is all going to be of very limited use to ordinary Ubuntu users, it is likely to raise the server edition's profile considerable, and in so doing, that of the Ubuntu distribution as well.
Colour is a feature
If you're looking for something a little more superficial, we've also been promised a palette makeover to the desktop. Shuttleworth has been noncommittal on the complete abandonment of brown, but it does seem likely that the standard Gnome desktop in Karma will look significantly different. It also looks likely that the boot graphics will change, and that there are further improvements to be made in boot optimisation.
Mark also mentioned the kernel mode setting in our interview, and it's hoped that this will be enabled by default. This will mean that Ubuntu will be able to show a complete graphical launch, much like the Plymouth boot interface currently used by Fedora. Ubuntu could use Plymouth, or Canonical's own Upstart, but the exact tool for Koala has yet to be decided.
All these changes are small steps, rather than revolutionary, which means it looks likely we'll have a sober and stable 11th release of Ubuntu. But it's the six-month release cycle that could be a bone of contention. When we asked Clement Lefebvre, maintainer of Ubuntu-derived Linux Mint, what changes he'd like to see, he told us he'd like more consolidation of the basic installation, rather than a focus on cutting-edge features.
"Of course," he said, "That wouldn't make sense for Ubuntu unless we became an upstream component of their distribution. I'm really happy with what Ubuntu is doing, and if I were to change anything… it would be the commitment to a release schedule and the return of a 'release when ready' policy to guarantee a stronger level of quality against regressions."
Mario Limonciello, the maintainer of Mythbuntu, makes a similar argument. "I would prefer that the release cycles were not strictly six months." he told us. "Over the last few releases there have been a variety of bugs that weren't deemed to 'hold up' the release and could just be fixed in a Stable Release Update. I'm of the opinion if you have a fix for the bug that you know works, you shouldn't put off the fix just to meet a deadline for releasing a CD. It's better to include the fix sooner and give a better experience to the user out of the box."