Ubuntu's shiny 10th birthday Unicorn: An upgrade fantasy

Exciting possibilities. Just not yet

By Scott Gilbertson


Review For a celebratory 10th birthday release, Ubuntu 14.10 is a bit of a damp squib.

I've been covering Ubuntu for seven of the release’s 10 years and 14.10 is the first time I've had to dig deep into the release notes just to find something new to test.

If you needed further proof that Canonical is currently solely focused on bringing its Unity 8 interface to mobile devices, 14.10 is the best evidence yet.

Almost nothing Canonical develops has changed in this release - there isn't even a new desktop wallpaper. There are some updates to be sure, but they don’t hail from Canonical. Point release updates for default GNOME apps are included, as is a new kernel, the latest version of Mesa, and some other underlying tools.

The lack of updates isn't unexpected, in fact that's been the plan all along.

Desktop Ubuntu is currently in a kind of suspended animation, waiting on Unity 8 and Mir to be ready for its coming metamorphosis. The short story is that it makes no sense for Canonical to keep refining Unity 7 when it will soon be retired.

There have been enough delays in the Mir and Unity 8 projects already; that Canonical is more or less punting on 14.10 is actually a good thing. Both Mir and Unity 8 were originally scheduled to be ready for this release, but only the most optimistic of Ubuntu fans ever believed the project could write an entirely new display server and integrated, device-spanning desktop interface in such a short period of time.

That Ubuntu is tackling the mobile world at all is reason enough to celebrate - even if you're not an Ubuntu fan. Sure, you can argue that Android is Linux on mobile devices, but it's not what anyone wants when they say: "I want Linux on my phone".

Unity 8 for mobile promises to be much closer to what most would call "real" Linux on a mobile device. And if it's necessary to sacrifice development of the desktop version of Ubuntu for one release cycle to make Unity 8 work, so be it.

You get what you see - new Ubuntu, same desktop (click to enlarge)

Even Apple (which is several orders of magnitude larger and richer than Canonical) put its desktop OS on the back burner in order to work on its iOS mobile interface.

As I pointed out in the beta review of 14.10, Canonical never had big plans for this release. Head over to the Utopic Blueprints page and you'll see there are only 35 items listed. Compare that with the 13.10 release cycle of last year, which had 195 items.

There are some worthwhile updates in 14.10 from other projects, which will likely be back ported in time.

The GNOME stack that powers Unity 7 has not been changed, which makes sense from a pragmatic standpoint. Why spend a bunch of effort updating to GNOME 3.12 when Unity 8 is coming anyway? While many GNOME elements remain at 3.10 in this release, several of the standard apps Ubuntu includes have seen minor updates - Firefox, OpenOffice, Thunderbird and Rhythmbox are all at the latest stable releases.

Utopic Unicorn also brings an updated kernel, which is now at 3.16. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS shipped earlier this year with 3.13, so there's quite a few new things to be had in 14.10. It might especially be worth testing 14.10 and its updated kernel if you've got newer hardware that's been giving you problems.

Hardware story

Among the notable updates to come down since the 3.13 kernel is stable support for Intel Broadwell CPU graphics, quite a few improvements for Nouveau (including the beginnings of NVIDIA Maxwell GPU support), support for NVIDIA Tegra PRIME and a new Synaptic input driver, which might fix misbehaving trackpads if you've had problems. A full list of what's new in 3.16 can be found here.

Unity itself has also had a slew of small improvements and bug fixes. Among the notable things in this extensive changelog are some HiDPI fixes that make Unity look nicer on high resolution screens. If you've got a HiDPI screen you might notice there's better UI scaling, nicer looking Dash Previews and some refinements to the lock screen.

That's about it for visible changes in this release, though.

Whether or not it's worth upgrading comes down to hardware support. If everything is working fine for you under 14.04, then stick with it - 14.10 is not the 'droid you're looking for. If, on the other hand, you've got new hardware that needs the latest kernel, 14.10 might be the easiest way to get it.

In a way it's fitting that Ubuntu's 10-year anniversary release isn't much of an update. Ubuntu has always been more focused on the exciting possibilities of the future and, that its currently pouring all its manpower into mobile demonstrates that, even a decade on, Ubuntu is still trying to push the boundaries of Linux.

Browsing in Ubuntu 14.10 (click to enlarge)

That Canonical has taken its developers off the desktop and put them to work exclusively on the future - Mir and Unity 8 - shows the company isn't resting on whatever laurels it may have accumulated over the last decade.

There are after all, plenty of Linux desktops with flashy new features if you really want something visibly different. Indeed all of the various Ubuntu flavors are turning out much more significant releases for 14.10 - in terms of new features anyway.

Ubuntu though has always been a risk-taking distro and it's nice to know, even if you don't always agree with its decisions, that it’s pushing the definition of what a Linux distro is. It polished the desktop and made it more welcoming to newcomers, something few other distros at the time were interested in doing. In doing so Ubuntu quickly became the most recognized name in Linux.

Ubuntu's role has changed over the years, but perhaps its most significant has been providing a gentle, welcome landing pad for Windows and other "switchers." While many might eventually move on to other distros, Ubuntu was and may well still be the gateway Linux distro.

What makes Ubuntu's mobile efforts so exciting is that the project might be able to do the same thing again, this time in the mobile world. And if Ubuntu can win new users over through the mobile space the way it has in the desktop space I'd argue the entire Linux community wins.

If you want to see what Unity 8 looks like and how it’s coming along, there is a new Ubuntu flavour called Ubuntu Next that you can download and test. Maybe.

Sometimes it installs for me in virtual machines, some times it does not. To say it's pre-release would be a significant understatement. But then, thus far, it's not even designed to run on a desktop so problems are to be expected

I suggest you skip Ubuntu Next. The first Ubuntu-powered mobile devices are supposedly going hit the market before the end of year. In the meantime, there's 14.10. ®

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