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Ubuntu seeks Android-packin' Windows deserters

A little tech knowledge goes a long way

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If you're packing an Android smartphone, not an iPhone, then you're the kind of free tech spirit that Canonical wants for Ubuntu Linux – version 11.04, to be precise.

Even better if you're a hacked-off Microsoft user running Windows and considering a move to Mac – the preferred escape route of many a Windows defector.

The thing that'll bring Windows converts to Ubuntu 11.04 – due on April 28, as the company is expected to confirm on Thursday – is its new Unity interface.

Unity, Canonical tells us, will appeal to tech-aware types who like the icons on their smartphones, plus their phones' ease of use and app downloadability, but who are more likely to use the "challenger brand" rather than the "main brand" – hence Android, not iPhone. And Ubuntu, not Mac.

"How do we make more Windows users switch to Ubuntu?" Canonical marketing manager Gerry Carr asked us. Er ... why don't you tell us, Gerry? "We think we have the interface there that's sufficiently compelling," he answers

Canonical reckons that 70 per cent of those visiting its web site run Windows. Carr hopes Unity will flip them in growing numbers, and is bolstering this by reprising its free try-before-you-don't-buy offer for the Linux distro's new release. Ubuntu 11.04 will be hosted on Amazon's cloud as part of a series of what Carr promises will be targeted efforts to reach Windows users.

All this is intended to promote one thing: Unity, a complete rewrite of Ubuntu's interface that pushes aside the familiar GNOME shell that the popular Linux distro had traded on. Canonical is using Unity as a springboard to reintroduce Ubuntu as if it were new.

Unity reorientates a Mac OS X–like dock along the side of the display to make greater use of space, features a universal search to find apps and docs, works on most screen resolutions and sizes, and packs a plethora of keyboard shortcuts to launch applications, open file browsers, and call up system-wide searching. Mirroring Apple's App Store, Ubuntu's Software Center has been updated to provide user reviews and star ratings for apps.

Ahead of Microsoft's Windows 8 on tablets, there are also the first signs of multi-touch input: you can move, resize, and maximize windows on a display that supports touch, or you can plug into Apple's Magic Trackpad. Unity also relies on hardware acceleration to reproduce rich graphics.

Carr says that Ubuntu looks better and makes working with applications and data easier than Windows on a PC. "Windows users will notice that Windows experience ... so beautifully realized and rendered that it will be compelling. People who like smartphones will like the way you can find apps. It's very icon-rich, you can install in a couple of clicks from the Unity Software Center, and it'll prompt [you] to download apps from the internet," he said.

"We focus on people who are likely to switch to Ubuntu," he said. "We think it's people who are moderately tech-aware, who – presented with an alternative – are likely to use an Android phone rather than an iPhone, [who are] more likely to use the challenger brand rather than the main brand. The majority of these people haven't just not heard of Ubuntu, but haven't considered an alternative to Windows outside of Mac."

If only getting Windows converts were that simple.

Canonical hasn't just demoted GNOME – the shell the Ubuntu faithful grew up with – and it risks losing out to something like Fedora 15, which keeps the faith with GNOME 3. Canonical has swapped GNOME for Unity – an interface that's still got plenty of bugs and workflow issues.

The bugs are mostly related to Unity's fundamental changes to how Ubuntu works. The Canonical engineering team, however, is "convinced" that issues identified in reviews have been fixed in the second Ubuntu 11.04 beta, released last week. Other bugs will be fixed by April 28. "We expect that for the vast majority of users there won't be issues," Carr reassures us.

Is the decision to make Unity the default interface in Ubuntu 11.04 and demote GNOME a mistake? "We decided to go full steam ahead. We knew it was a fairly formidable engineering effort to get everything going well," Carr told us. "We have taken a pretty open mind in that. We haven't forced [Unity] beyond where it's ready, and we have been rigorous in challenging the engineering teams around the abilities of the whole thing."

We'll see. A little technical knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and the risk of targeting Windows users who are considering a Mac by using a less-than-perfect Unity is they'll be not only be lost to Ubuntu for this and future releases, but they'll also tell their hipster friends how bad Linux is.

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