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Ubuntu's high-risk Linux Narwhal beta floats

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Canonical's short march towards multi-touch success (or its slow slide in to oblivion) is a step closer to completion. On Thursday, it released the Ubuntu 11.04 beta.

Codenamed Natty Narwhal, Ubuntu 11.04 is the first version of the Linux distro that defaults to Unity, the multi-touch interface we were once told was for touch-only on devices.

The change is taking place as Canonical combines both the desktop and netbook versions of Ubuntu.

Announcing the change in interfaces earlier this year, Ubuntu creator Mark Shuttleworth had said the Gnome shell wasn't heading in the same direction as Ubuntu. The sticking point was use of GL graphics and 3D, he said.

Unity is a massive undertaking for the distro, not just because it has spent six years on Gnome, but because it's also fundamentally changing the look of Ubuntu and how applications are installed and accessed by users.

Unity puts application icons down the side of the screen, and it features keyboard navigation and launcher activation through keyboard shortcuts.

Unity could be the making or the breaking of Ubuntu, by positioning it as a user-friendly Linux for a future of touch-based systems, or it could frustrate and lose those already using it.

Elsewhere, Ubuntu 11.04 attempts to bring the web closer to the desktop with a Software Center for application downloads that features App-Store-like user reviews and ratings.

Thr distro includes Firefox 4.0 as the standard browser, LibreOffice 3.3.2, and Banshee 1.9.5 as the standard music player.

On the server side, the Amazon-like Eucalyptus 2.0.2 jostles for room with OpenStack in the Universe is a technology preview, with a recent snapshot of the 2011.2 release codenamed Cactus. Shuttleworth made it sounds like Ubuntu will in future be picking either Eucalyptus or OpenStack as its blessed architecture for building private clouds.

"In the cloud, we'll have to tighten up and make some firm decisions about the platforms we can support for 12.04 LTS," he said enigmatically while announcing Ubuntu 11.10 - the successor to Ubuntu 11.04 - in March. ®

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