Ubuntu 11.04: an OS for your mum

The world is a big place, and it seems of no coincidence that Canonical’s offices sit 27 floors up in the Millbank Tower with a 360-degree view of it right in the middle of London. Canonical is the parent company of the most popular distribution free, open-source computer operating system known as Linux, and if there’s one thing between them and their broad horizons, it’s Windows.

Since 2004 Ubuntu has offered users another way when it comes to their PCs, but with that way one of unfamiliar applications, no hotline support and less compatibility than one might get with Microsoft, it’s been largely ignored by the mainstream computer owner. According to Canonical, however, with the launch of the latest version, Ubuntu 11.04, all of that is about to change.

“There’s no real choice for an alternative OS at the moment,” director of communications at Canonical Gerry Carr tells us as he walks Pocket-lint through the redesigned software codenamed Natty Narwhal.

“For the first time, Ubuntu is ready for consumers who are used to a PC experience. We just need people to give it a fair crack and then we’re hoping to see it pre-installed.”

While versions of Linux made an appearance on early netbooks not powerful enough to run Windows when the little laptop first arrived a few years back, Ubuntu 11.04 has been created with a higher resolution, big screen machine in mind. The more user friendly Unity interface, which debuted on the previous version of Ubuntu, 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), is now upscaled for full-sized machines and is even touch-ready in case the tablet manufacturers decide to come calling.

“There are prototypes in existence,” confesses Carr, “but no Ubuntu tablets available at the moment.”

One reason, of course, is that with Android in existence, the tablet makers seem to need look no further, but it’s not the answer for all the manufacturers according to Carr. The problem lies for those in the PC market looking to get in on the latest hardware trend that is, rather than those from the mobile handset space. The issue is one of coherency across devices and a reason why many have been keen to offer Windows instead.

“They can’t use iOS or BlackBerry OS and Android leaves them stuck on one machine, so Windows is the trap. Their profits on the hardware become marginalised in order to afford to package in the Windows licence which they know that the consumer wants and needs. With 11.04, we want to create an alternative demand so that the OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] see a genuine interest and genuine market.”

The fly in the ointment, of course, might be Google’s plans with Chrome OS, something which would certainly be a better fit on a laptop as a companion device to an Android tablet, and that could well prove more attractive to the manufacturers rather than an operating system that’s so often associated with a fair degree of confusion for the casual user.

Whether it’s the fact that it’s not a perfect fit from one to the other or because of Chrome OS’s cloud-based approach, Carr dismisses the threat with a quick “we’ve taken a look at what Google are doing but it doesn’t seem quite right”.

So what is it that Canonical thinks Ubuntu has to offer this time around which will convince both the users and the laptop making industry that it’s time to make the switch?

“People don’t quite believe how far into the mainstream we want to push this. It’s a product for someone’s mum. That’s not something we would have said 2 years ago.

“It’s for someone who uses a PC at work and has one at home which they use to Skype the kids, email, watch iPlayer, browse the web, word processing and other basic office admin, and that’s about the extent of it.”

While it’s a great idea on paper - a light-weight, no cost OS -  the trouble is that there’s a world of familiar desktop apps that people will no longer be able to use, but while Google continues to push the idea of computing through your browser, an increasing reliance on universally accessible web apps can only be a good thing for Ubuntu.

Until the practice becomes more prevalent, Canonical has redesigned the look of its leading software project and, from the off, it’s created something all the more attractive to its target market. Gone is the brown desktop and in is a decidedly Mac-looking purple effect complete with a friendly launcher bar at the side of the screen - the first elements of the Unity interface that greet you. To give the team its dues though, that’s where the similarity ends with the key focus of the UI all about search.

While it’s perfectly possible to follow file trees to find whatever it is you’re after, Ubuntu 11.04 introduces a search dash, the idea being that you just start typing your desire and up pops the relevant icon - be that an app you already own or one you can download from the software centre. It’s not a new concept. Both Windows and Mac OS have the same thing delivered as a smaller piece of screen real estate, but for Ubuntu it’s the main tool that Canonical wants you to use.

“We’re trying to move away from the traditional file and folder menus; more that you type in what you want and it appears,” explains Carr.

“We want to take the burden of administration away from the user. There’s no need to remember where everything is. Just put it on the PC. Think how many people save onto the desktop because they don’t know where to put it.”

Combined with the idea of a software centre full of apps, the whole approach harks more to a smartphone than any other laptop computer OS at the moment, something of which the Ubuntu developers are very much aware.

“People are more and more familiar with this kind of look and feel and it’s how they’re used to interacting with devices.”

Another potential big pull is Ubuntu One - the Dropbox-like cloud storage, syncing and streaming solution for those on the OS. Now headed by Roberta Nilerud, formerly of Spotify, it offers a music store as well as 2GB of free space to keep whatever you like. For an added $3.99 each month you can stream any audio you have in your locker to your iOS or Android device on the move via an app, plus an additional room should you be willing to pay for it. While you’re still limited to playing only music that you own it’s a low price if that’s the kind of privilege that you’re after, it's also complete with caching for those moments when you’re out of coverage.

While a good handful of the standard apps are the same as you might use on your current desktop of choice - Firefox, Skype, VLC - there’s still a few faces to get used to in the shape of Libre Office, Shotwell photo editor and the notoriously tricky but powerful image editor Gimp. For those desperate for a Windows supported application, they can always be run through the emulator Wine but it’s not something those at Canonical recommend with the program “working well but not perfectly” and if it’s iTunes you’re after, that’s apparently “a problem”.

Another problem that’s a lot more serious is the issue of PC gaming. Aside a bunch of casual games, you can forget about any of the big titles as compatible with Ubuntu or any form of Linux.

“Admittedly, gaming is one of those things,” says Carr. “We’d love to bring gamers on board. There’s a company in Brazil making games exclusively for Linux but, still, that’s definitely one of the big barriers for people. As far as our target market for 11.04 goes, though, fortunately, your mum’s unlikely to be a hardcore gamer.”

Canonical has managed to add some back catalogue titles to Ubuntu which publishers have made available to them, and that’s about as far as it’s ever likely to go.

“I don’t know if it will ever change. I think it’s more likely that PC gaming will disappear than Ubuntu becoming a first tier gaming platform - and I don’t think PC gaming will disappear.”

What awaits for anyone who can stomach the changes and is willing to take the risk of something new is a system that’ll boot up far quicker than Windows and one with no need for anti-virus.

“It’s essentially virus free in any meaningful sense of the term,” says Carr, outlining how, purely by numbers, it’s just not worth writing malicious code for Linux.

“Ask our security team and they’ll tell you that there were six virusus between 2006 and the present and none of them never made it anywhere.”

Interestingly, it’s just this kind of advantage that actually proves a hindrance for Canonical when trying to get its software to come packaged with PCs at point of sale.

“It’s hard in retail because when you sell someone a PC, the next thing you do is sell them anti-virus. You can’t do that with Ubuntu.”

It’s a similar story with peripherals. Linux simply isn’t something that all the printer makers worry about.

“The other problem we face is having to explain to the sales staff exactly what Ubuntu is. So, we’re working on some very simple presentations so that they don’t have to read a bunch of documents to find out.”

The cost of it all is that, currently, you only really get a choice of Linux on full sized PCs with Dell and in some of the developing markets, the latter of which has been an area of some contention. According to Carr, Microsoft gave Windows out as a free gift to a local district of schools in India. A few years later and the software giant told them it was to start paying for their licences. Most reluctantly coughed up but one school did stand firm and converted all their machines to Linux - an act which a further 1.8 million schoolchildren in the developing world will be following as they too change to Ubuntu in the coming months.

Whether in India, America or Europe, there’s certainly a price argument to be had. "Do I want to continue to pay for upgrades to my OS?" is the question that Carr encourages the public to pose, but does that mean Linux and Ubuntu will become the preserve for knackered old PCs then?

“Yes, there is that danger,” he agrees, “but our goal is not to be the cheap alternative. We want to be the desirable choice and that’s why we’ve made the switch to be something that’s easier to use and fun to use and functional as well. Competing on price is not something we’ve set out to do but, at the same time, there is a fundamental to make the best tech available to everyone for free.”

“All we ask for is a fair playing field - an option to free install our OS with browsers. There’s a notion prevalent that people only have one computer and it’s a binary choice - Windows or Ubuntu, and that’s not the case. Go to the website, install the software and try it out.”

Are you interested in trying out Ubuntu or how about installing it on your mum's computer? Let us know in the comments.

You can download Ubuntu 11.04 here.