Ubuntu 9.04: More of the same

A lack of real innovation may doom Canonical's latest and greatest desktop Linux to irrelevancy

Yawn: That's how I reacted when I heard that Ubuntu 9.04, aka "Jaunty Jackalope," had reached the release candidate stage. It was sort of like hearing about President Obama making another policy speech. There was a time when everything he said was new and exciting. But now it all sounds like another rehash of the previous week's press conference.

Ubuntu has fallen into this same sort of repetitive rut. Every six months, Canonical dutifully releases a new, whimsically code-named version. And each time, the IT illuminati nod approvingly, while struggling to stifle their collective yawns. After all, it's tough to get excited about a bunch of minor kernel tweaks and incremental bundling revisions. Simply put, there hasn't been a lot of meat on the bone with the most recent releases, and "Jaunty" does nothing to disrupt this trend.

[ See the InfoWorld Test Center's first look at Ubuntu 9.04. | Desktop Linux is a worthy successor to Windows XP in business. Nevertheless, it may have lost its chance. ]

Of course, it wasn't always this way. Back when "Feisty" (7.04) and "Gutsy" (7.10) were brand-new, Ubuntu was all the rage with the IT "it" crowd. Each release seemed chock-full of groundbreaking (for Linux) features and technologies. You felt as if Ubuntu was the distro that could really go the distance, the open source David that would ultimately slay the evil, proprietary Goliath called Microsoft.

But a funny thing happened: People started trying out Ubuntu. And they found that despite the exterior polish and whiz-bang media coverage, it was still Linux at heart. And that meant lots of headaches for new users as they tried to navigate the myriad Linux hardware/software compatibility issues and to make sense of the arrogant, "pass the buck" mentality of the vaunted Linux support community.

Ultimately, the great Ubuntu ascendancy never materialized, and Canonical -- perhaps sensing that its David would be squashed in any head-to-head confrontation -- scaled back its desktop plans to focus on the emerging netbook segment. As a result, some high-profile features, like a promised new UI theme, fell off the radar. In fact, there has been little in the way of true innovation since "Hardy Heron" (8.04) hit the wires a year ago.

Now we're presented with "Jaunty," which is by far the most anemic release to date, in terms of new features. The highlight? A new CD/DVD burning application called Brasero. Seriously. That's item No. 1 on the list of new/improved features. Yes, Canonical updated Gnome (now version 2.26), XORG (now version 1.6), and the Linux kernel (2.6.28), but it does that with every release.

To be fair, there is a nifty new Display control panel that makes it easier to manage multiple displays. And a few of the buggier proprietary video drivers, such as ATI's, now have open source alternatives. But otherwise, there's not much to say about this particular iteration. Canonical is still on the fence regarding the ext4 file system: It supports it, but won't make it the default option until the next major release, "Karmic Koala," later this year.

As for Canonical's claims of improved boot performance, I never found the previous versions to be particularly slow to boot, at least in comparison to Windows Vista. Chalk this one up to the company's focus on the aforementioned netbook segment, where a long boot cycle would seem out of character for what is essentially an instant-on device.

In fact, everything about Canonical's latest and greatest points to a company that has scaled back its goals to reflect the harsh reality of the climate in which it operates -- sort of like a certain U.S. president who is finding it tougher than expected to enact his ambitious agenda. Neither can afford to overreach for fear of losing precious momentum. And in Canonical's case, it'll need all the help it can get if it hopes to stave off the coming Windows-7-for-netbooks onslaught.

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