Ubuntu 11.04 may just be one of the most widely -- and sometimes even anxiously -- anticipated releases yet of Canonical's popular open source operating system.
That's because version 11.04, also known as "Natty Narwhal," will be the first release in which some major, game-changing decisions on Canonical's part will begin to be felt. Though the Wayland graphics system won't be ready in time for version 11.04, 3D-enabled Unity is the new default desktop interface in this new version, as we saw early last month when the first alpha version was released.
The next alpha version of Natty isn't due until the middle of next month, according to Canonical's release schedule, and a final version won't be released until the end of April. Future Ubuntu versions, meanwhile, haven't even been given an official name yet.
Nevertheless, several tidbits of news about the Linux-based operating system have emerged in recent weeks that only add to the Ubuntu excitement. Here's a small sampling.
Those of us who don't yet have 3D-enabled hardware will surely be glad to learn that Natty Narwhal will offer a 2D version of the Unity desktop interface.
"Unity 2D's main goal is to provide a Unity environment on hardware platforms that don't support Unity's OpenGL requirements," wrote Canonical engineering manager Bill Filler in a blog post last Thursday. Many ARM platforms fall into this category, he noted, so Unity 2D will expand Unity's reach to a considerable class of new hardware.
"We've made a significant effort to try and match the visual style of Unity quite closely, so Unity 2D will have the same look and feel as Unity," Filler added. "It's installed as its own session so it can live side by side with Unity, Gnome, your favorite session, etc..."
Filler's post includes several screen shots of the 2D version of Unity. It can also now be installed in Ubuntu 10.10 and 11.04, according to reports; a video and installation instructions are even available.
Compiz, Not Mutter
Hand in hand with the Unity news last fall came word that Ubuntu 11.04 will use the Compiz window manager by default rather than Mutter, and that will soon boost the 3D version's speed considerably, Filler noted.
So, for those with hardware that supports it, the 3D version of Unity will offer more functionality and visual effects than the 2D version does, primarily because it can "harness the full power of OpenGL," Filler noted. Its speed will also be "much improved in the Natty cycle as it's moved away from Mutter/Clutter in favor of Compiz/Nux," he added.
Last week word emerged that Natty Narwhal will support cloud computing through both OpenStack and Eucalyptus cloud platforms.
The cloud is "all about reshaping the way that people think they will consume GNU/Linux, and making it easier to amplify the effects of good skills," Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth explained in a recent video interview.
"What's important to us is that people can deploy OpenStack and they can look at it through the same set of APIs that they can look at a Eucalyptus-based cloud and the same set of APIs that they can look at an Amazon or RackSpace-based cloud," Shuttleworth added.
Audio, Office Apps
With Ubuntu 10.10 we saw app changes including the replacement of F-Spot with Shotwell as the default photo manager. Now, it was just recently announced that in 11.04, Rhythmbox has been replaced by Banshee as the default audio player.
Banshee supports portable media players including iPod, Android devices and Creative's ZEN players; it also offers Last.fm integration and podcast support, among many other features.
Though it's been the subject of some debate, there's also been word that LibreOffice will replace OpenOffice.org.
Looking beyond Natty Narwhal, Mark Shuttleworth announced on Tuesday that future versions of Ubuntu will incorporate the Qt user interface libraries and may include applications based on the Qt framework.
"We'll need to find some space on the CD for Qt libraries, and we will evaluate applications developed with Qt for inclusion on the CD and default install of Ubuntu," Shuttleworth wrote on his blog. "We should evaluate apps on the basis of how well they meet the requirement, not prejudice them on the basis of technical choices made by the developer."
Canonical is currently guiding the development of dconf bindings for Qt "so that it is possible to write a Qt app that uses the same settings framework as everything else in Ubuntu," Shuttleworth added.
What this will mean: more choice, more applications.
'What Free Software Can Be'
All in all, I believe Ubuntu is shaping up to take the mass-market by storm, even more than it has already, and that's definitely a good thing for Linux and open source software.
As Shuttleworth concluded in the video interview mentioned above, "it's important to show the world what free software can be."
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.