Ubuntu 'Trusty Tahr' is a solid step forward, not a leap

Latest version of Canonical's desktop Linux addresses a major UI gripe and builds the base for overdue tablet edition of Ubuntu

Ubuntu, Canonical's edition of Linux aimed mainly at end-users and desktops, published its 14.04 release on Thursday. It's an incremental upgrade, polishing existing features rather than introducing revolutionary new ones, but it features at least one rethinking of an interface feature that's divided Ubuntu users for some time.

Code-named "Trusty Tahr," 14.04 is one of the LTS (long-term support) editions of Ubuntu, designed to be supported for five years by Canonical, though some spin-off editions carry only three years of support. It sports the 3.13 edition of the Linux kernel, itself outfitted with some major virtualization and hardware support functions.

Of the latter, the most noteworthy addition is support for 64-bit ARM and POWER systems. Both are useful for server environments, but the former ought to prove doubly in demand when Canonical helps roll out the first Ubuntu-powered tablets running 14.04.

One major and long-awaited bit of interface polish involves a fix to the Unity window manager, which annoyed the Ubuntu community the same way Windows 8's Metro inflamed Windows users. Unity forced application menus to sit at the top of the screen, in much the same manner as Mac OS X, rather than be attached to their attendant windows.

This had bad repercussions for high-pixel-density displays. The menus grew more removed from the applications themselves, so as of 14.04, app menus are placed back with their own windows. The change has to be made manually, but it isn't difficult.

Relocating the menus is one of a number of changes made to allow Ubuntu to play better with high-resolution displays on desktops, smartphone, and tablets. Canonical clearly wants Ubuntu present on more tablets, and while it has specific installation instructions for those who want to load Ubuntu the way they side-loaded custom Android ROMs, Canonical is betting on its partnerships with hardware makers to deliver Ubuntu as a mobile OS.

Canonical's biggest impact isn't on desktops or mobile devices, though; as with many other varieties of Linux, it's been on the server side. Canonical has been pushing Ubuntu harder as a cloud building block OS recently, since the desktop market remains stagnant and mobile is difficult for outsiders to crack -- thanks to the Apple and Google duopoly. It makes sense then for Canonical to attack on as many fronts as possible.

It's worth keeping an eye on future desktop versions of Ubuntu to see whether Canonical reworks the system to take better advantage of containerization technologies like Docker. The application-virtualization system is now a notable component of Ubuntu Server and might well find its way into the desktop edition. Red Hat is said to be attempting a similar move with future versions of Fedora, using the lessons learned from Docker on the server side to better determine how to package and distribute the desktop edition. It'll be interesting to see if Ubuntu cooks up a plan along those lines, too, and how unlike Red Hat's approach it might be.

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