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Shuttleworth stretches Ubuntu from netbooks to heavens

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Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, and the marketing machine that is Microsoft are tough acts to follow. But Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu Linux project, is relieved that Windows 7 is out. Now, Ubuntu 9.10 - which is arguably the best desktop Linux released by the project and supported by Canonical, the commercial entity that provides tech support and other services for Ubuntu - can get on with showing how Ubuntu stacks up to Windows on both the desktop and on the server.

After all, the pressure is really on Microsoft to defend its desktops and servers and its relatively recent advances in netbooks. Microsoft is the public company with shareholders, while Canonical and the Ubuntu project is backed up Shuttleworth, who made his hundreds of millions of dollars in the dot-com boom and is more interested in building an open source platform than in generating profits for shareholders.

The desktop and server editions of the "Karmic Koala" Ubuntu 9.10 release were officially launched today, although Canonical was talking up the server edition two weeks ago, which includes an integrated, EC2-compatible cloud computing environment that is based on the open source Eucalyptus Project and uses KVM virtual machines. But the desktop edition has seen plenty of work, as El Reg explained in this review of the release candidate at the beginning of the month.

The downloads for Ubuntu 9.10 - as well as images preloaded and ready to go on Amazon's EC2 compute cloud - will be available this Thursday. "Everything I was concerned about seems to have landed, and in good order," Shuttleworth said in a conference call announcing the release. And he is chomping at the bit to see how the 9.10 release is received by the IT community and by Windows XP shops mulling over Windows 7.

"I am delighted that Windows 7 is out," Shuttleworth said. "Now that Windows 7 is out, we can compete head to head." With no hint of sarcasm at all, Shuttleworth said that Windows 7 was a "credible release, even on netbooks" and that it was pretty clear after the Windows Vista debacle that Microsoft needed to put a decent release into the field. But, Shuttleworth added, the real question is how Windows XP users would take to the Windows 7 Starter Edition, which has some key features users want restricted. If you want those features, you have to move up the Windows 7 product line and give Microsoft more money.

"So based on this fact, I am optimistic," Shuttleworth explained. "The Linux desktop experience keeps getting better and better, and the Windows experience keeps getting more and more expensive for a set of features. And in that environment, I think we can compete." Especially with an Ubuntu desktop support contract costing only $55 per year."

Having watched Apple very carefully, Canonical wants to not only distribute operating systems and sell service and support for them but also to get into the content business and foster content distribution for Ubuntu enthusiasts. That is what the new Ubuntu One framework is for, which debuted in beta form in May and which is now embedded in the 9.10 release.

The One service consists of an identity management, billing, file management, and content management back end operated by Canonical that initially will be used to allow files to be synchronized over multiple devices running Ubuntu. Right now, the One service is restricted to file and note sharing and calendar and contact synchronization, but it will soon get email sharing and will eventually support telephone synchronization for voicemail.

The idea, says Shuttleworth, is that there will be a blurring of the lines between a desktop computing and back-end services running on compute clouds and, more importantly, that end users will not necessarily want to interface with those back-end services running on clouds through a Web browser. They will want an application to directly run those services, just like the iPhone does. And they will pay a small fee for these apps, so Canonical is hoping. Ubuntu 9.10 includes 2 GB of file storage space on the Ubuntu One service for free, and you can get an additional 50 GB for $10 a month.

The desktop release includes a redone Ubuntu Netbook Remix (which is certified on 25 different netbooks) and includes a tweaked version of the Ubuntu Software Center feature for adding and removing software components to the Ubuntu stack. Eventually, says Shuttleworth, third party software suppliers will start making use of these features to provide simple and consistent installation for Linux apps.

This add/remove feature is only at the 1.0 release now, and will apparently be enhanced some more with the Ubuntu 10.04 Long Term Support (LTS) release when it comes out next April. (LTS releases provide support for servers for five years and for desktops for three years, rather than the 18 months of support a regular Ubuntu release gets).

The Ubuntu 9.10 Desktop Edition includes enhancements to the audio and networking systems in the desktop release - things that end users have been crabbing about in Linux for many years and rightfully so. And 80 of the 100 "paper cut" annoyances that Ubuntu users crabbed about to Canonical were also fixed in the release. That said, there is no guarantee that every desktop and laptop machine out there will run Ubuntu 9.10 flawlessly. Shuttleworth was not foolish enough to give a blanket statement that it would run on anything, and he admitted that there were some compatibility issues with the iPhone. But he added that the open source community, backed by hardware vendors, was putting in a tremendous amount of work on drivers and that "most people will have a positive experience."

Just in case, you might want to use the LiveCD version and see what Ubuntu 9.10 thinks of your hardware before nuking that Windows XP or Windows Vista image on your PC.

Canonical is a privately held company, and it has a lot of irons in the fire, trying to take on netbooks, desktops, servers, clouds, and application services all at the same time. There is some concern that Canonical might be spread a little too thin. When asked to provide some statistics about the uptake of Ubuntu, Shuttleworth declined and said that his strategy was to create a complete platform, spanning from small devices to clouds, and that he was not concerned about Canonical being profitable. (A sentiment he has expressed more than once to El Reg).

"I have no concerns at this stage about being profitable," Shuttleworth said. "I am absolutely convinced we need to deliver Ubuntu as a platform and that means we have to engage in a number of battles at the same time." So, for instance, that means developers might be writing applications on ARM-based netbooks but deploying them on x64-based clouds for end users working from laptops and desktops to access. And all of these need to be running Ubuntu in an idealized Canonical universe.

To put it another way, Shuttleworth is not doing this for the money, but to see the look on Steve Ballmer's face.

And to get a credible and popular open source alternative to Windows out there. Something that OEMs on all types of computers will not hesitate in whole-heartedly adopting. Ubuntu 9.10 is a step in that direction, as far as Canonical is concerned. Time will tell what end users and corporations think. ®

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