Dulce et decorum est pro Distro mori
A long time ago, in an analogy far, far away, a battle was being waged. It
was not, as some might tempt you into believing, a confrontation between
good and evil. Nor was it precisely an economic revolution - an
overturning of all that has come before. These predictions have, of
course, been made before. And on the eve of every battle, they are made
again. So if we close our eyes, just for a moment, and believe...
A giant software empire stands poised on the brink of world dominion.
Their rule is not a benevolent one. OEM taxes cripple the populace and DRM
spies are everywhere. Spyware bandits terrorise innocent citizens, while
malware and viruses run rampant. Both the police force and health-care
system are on the take. They provide no public welfare, and run their own
protection rackets on the side. The people suffer, and yet the Empire,
concerned only with its own profit, spends its budget on propaganda and
prepares for the imminent release of its next operating system.
Many refugees have fled across the waves to iCountry, where everything is
white, mayhap even translucent, and beneath the Empire’s mighty shadow, a
band of daring rebels struggle to free the desktop. But the rebels' main
strength is also their Achilles heel. "Choice!" they proclaim, and
‘choice’ they offer. Deb or RPM? Vim or Emacs? Gnome or KDE?
And from time to time, rising up from deep within this pool of vibrant
chaos, an occasional Champion will emerge. Linus Torvalds, Richard
Stallman, Patrick Volkerding, and lately, some might claim, Mark
Shuttleworth. Many developers will follow their flag, many more will not.
But for a moment in time, however brief, the light of Open Source shines
Romantic, idealised, and contentious as this view may be - a certain
amount of creative flair goes a long way to explain Ubuntu's sudden rise
to fame. We all know the story behind the distribution, but harder to
explain is its enormous popularity. Much of this, I believe can be
attributed to sheer Internet presence. When you hit a problem with Linux and
Google for it - you're as likely to come across the solution on Ubuntu's
forums as not. Or else the Wiki. Or perhaps someone has already scripted a
workaround. Certainly, I myself was completely unaware of Ubuntu until I
encountered a problem with dual monitors using Fedora Core 3 and went searching.
And now, it is April, 2006. 6.04, in Versionspeak. Six flight CDs have come
and gone, and I have watched them all pass before me. Moreover, it has
been nearly eighteen months since the first Ubuntu release, and a lot has
been promised. So much so, that Canonical have decided to break one of
those promises and delay the release of Ubuntu 6.04, now 6.06, in order
to accommodate them. The next version of Ubuntu, codenamed 'Dapper Drake',
is just around the corner. Will the rising brown star continue to rise? Or
will burn up on entry with the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving behind nothing
but a smattering of *buntu derivatives.
A Little Spit and Polish Never Hurt Anyone
This is not a review. It is not fair to review a work in progress. It is
not a preview either. Such has already been done. Besides, all too often
both views degenerate into a list of everything that does not yet work.
And! And! Even reviews of released Linux distributions often do little
more than enumerate features that haven't been added yet, but are already
present in the author's current favourite. So I won't cover in any great
depth what is and is not in Dapper. If you want to mark for yourself each
stride forward, please visit the testing pages linked to above. It will
tell you what you need to know, and has pretty screen-shots besides.
I will not hide my bias either. Ubuntu is my Darling. It cradled me in its
soft, brown arms, soothing the burns and blisters of years of Windows and
RPMs. I will say this: Working with Dapper on standard desktop hardware is
a pleasant experience. I have an AMD64 3500+ processor, 512MB of ram, a
GeForce 4200, on-board sound and Ethernet, plus an old prism-based 11mbs
wireless card. Nothing too new, nothing too old. Not even a printer or
scanner to bang my head against.
Now let us take an x86 install CD. The graphical boot menu is a nice
touch. In earlier versions you could hit the F8 key and everything
would... sparkle. This is now gone, as it was never meant to be in the
first place. Hit 'ENTER', and we are back into the blue, text-based
I do not subscribe to the opinion that a text-based installer is an
automatic black mark. Answering a few quick questions is no hardship.
A user who has never installed an operating system before won't have
anything to compare against. Besides, if you don't know what you're doing
- any installer is intimidating – pretty blue bubbles or not. The live
CD now features a graphical installer, which I am not man enough to fiddle
with pre-production. But I do hear tell that Canonical's eventual plan is to
only ship the live-CD via Shipit. The
installer and server CDs will still, and always, be free for download.
The installer itself has been tweaked so that it no longer requires a
reboot after the initial set of packages has been copied off the CD. It
also does its best to ask all questions up front. The only spanner in the
works is (still) X configuration. If you have a reasonably well behaved
monitor, it will run straight through until the you hit desktop, but
monitors that are not detected automatically will ask you to pick a
resolution half-way through. I was amused to see that, perhaps as a
side-effect of this tweaking, the installer now claims it is 'downloading'
packages even when it is simply copying them off the CD.
Up until Flight 4, the Dapper artwork had not significantly changed. It looked
much the same as Breezy. But daily updates catapulted my system into a
brilliant orange, slowly fading to a light pastel that may or may not
delight your eyes. I find it rather more neutral than the previous brown,
and find myself hunting backgrounds to match. As opposed to 5.10, where I
would pick a background and then search for a theme to match.
There are an increasing number of minor cosmetic changes. The icons have
been overhauled and there are little touches of orange everywhere. Most done
rather nicely, I thought. The system notification pop-up has improved
markedly since the early Flights. Ejecting a USB-drive now flashes a
pop-up asking you to wait while the OS finishes writing data to the drive
before unmounting it. The main menus have tool-tips, as does the workplace
switcher. The menus have been reorganised and, with mixed results,
As I sit here writing this, a patch just went through that collected all
the removable media and mountable drives into a single sub-menu of the
'Places' menu. This is change was so natural and intuitive that, merely
seconds after the patch was replied, I can barely remember how the Places
menu used to look.
All system tools and GUI configurators now sit in their rightful place under
the System menu. No more hunting back and forth between 'Applications -->
System Tools' and 'System'. However, as part of this process some other
things you might want have been hidden. If this is the case – the menu
entries are still there and can be re-enabled via the menu editor. On this
topic, I must applaud the decision to put the Scanning menu item back in.
The previous decision to remove it because scanning could be accessed
through The Gimp was laudable, but misguided. Less disruptive, the Gconf
editor is now MIA. However, I would have never even noticed this if I
hadn't been playing with Xgl and Compiz (see below).
But all these cosmetic changes are almost beside the point. Dapper is
faster. I daresay this is one area in which your personal mileage will
vary. And no doubt much of the improvement comes from the optimisation of
Gnome 2.14. But I, for one, can feel the difference. Ubuntu boots faster,
Gnome starts in seconds, tool-tips appear instantly and menus snap open
without a moment's delay. Even Openoffice appears to start faster and run
smoother. It's a subtle thing, and perhaps even the lighter theme
contributes to the feeling. But by contrast, Ubuntu 5.10 feels heavy and
sluggish. An incremental release cycle on a short timescale can lead to a
feeling that each release is a little inadequate. But I dare anyone to go
back to Ubuntu 4.10, or even 5.04, and then sit down at a Dapper machine
without smiling. In comparison, it's a whole new playing field.
But does it work?
So we have a shiny, new OS. What can it do? Regarding multimedia - we now
have Gstreamer 0.10. This, and Totem, have generated much angst on the
development lists. I don't have much multimedia content to experiment
with, but after installing all the Gstreamer plugins and support for
encrypted DVDs, I had no problems playing anything from my small
collection with the default players. The one exception was an IMA ADPCM
encoded .wav file which stuttered horribly if you tried to seek through
it. No matter, the command line tool 'Sox' converted it to Ogg/Vorbis, and
Totem was happy again.
Our Kodak digital camera still works - no regressions there, as do HDD
Camcorders. But this is no surprise as both are just USB mass storage.
The CD/DVD burner built into Nautilus functions the same way the native
Windows burner does. It has received a small face lift, but I still don't
like it. So far, I have failed to find an intuitive way of using it. It
requires having at least two Nautilus windows open. One to display the
burning folder, and one for dragging/dropping. Also, you cannot easily see
how much space the items dragged into it are taking up. However, it is
easy to change the behaviour of Ubuntu's 'create data CD' button to launch
something else. Like GnomeBaker or K3B. I have done this, and am content.
Openoffice is still Openoffice. Not as 'feature complete' as Microsoft
Office, sure, but I don't think it needs to be. It has handled everything
I've asked of it so far, and I ask a lot more than your casual home user.
The Gimp has just about weaned me off my Photoshop addiction. The updated
applications in Dapper do not reveal, to casual inspection, any more
features than in 5.10. I do not have a microphone, and thus have not tried
Ekiga – the replacement for Gnomemeeting.
At first blush, that's about the extent of it. This may disappoint a few
people - but it makes sense when you consider that the vision for Ubuntu’s
Dapper release is 'polish'. The confluence of Openoffice 2, Firefox
1.5 and Gnome 2.14 provides a powerful synergy. The culmination of years
of hard effort seem to have come to a head, and the Dapper release of
Ubuntu aims to stitch them into a powerful, cohesive system that will age
gracefully over its three year desktop cycle. So no, we should not expect
to see Great New Things in Dapper. That is not what this release is about.
But if our expectations are suitably flexible, if we can be content with
Breezy, but better, there is no reason not to be pleased with
Dapper as it currently stands.
But under the surface, there are some new things. A huge community effort
has managed to squeeze the Network Manager into Dapper, easing the woes of
many wireless users, and bringing easy configuration of WPA networks
within reach. Plus, Gnome has been compiled with support for Beagle.
Beagle is not yet in the 'Main' repositories, but if you install it many
applications will be aware of it, and use it to assist their searches.
We must try Xgl. Sure, it doesn't do anything we haven't seen done
better on a Mac. Also, we have the root window. We can rip open Fluxbox
and run the GLMatrix screensaver as our background. How's that for eye
candy, eh? E17 can pull similar tricks, too. But I detect a
deeply rooted fear, disguised most often as a blunt arrogance, that people
would rather be playing solitaire in a window with a translucent title bar
than actually working in one without.
And so... Xgl and Compiz packages have been included in Dapper. They work,
too, so long as you have a supported video card. Installation is not much
harder than apt-getting a couple of packages, copy-pasting some text from
the HOWTO into
your GDM configuration file, and hitting Ctrl+Alt+Backspace.
Your windows will wobble! So will your little tool-tips, and menus. There
will be fading, and drop-shadows, and you will rejoice! You may also
become thoroughly annoyed. Especially as a bug now causes
'Shift+Backspace' to kill your X session. On the other hand, there are
some generally useful enhancements. Inspired by MacOSX, you can hit 'F12'
view all your open windows at once, and bring one to the foreground with a
single click. That much, at least, is very useful – even if the wobble is not.
There is now an 'example-content' package. I'll be honest, I don't know if
the install CD will advertise its presence. But it is there, in
/usr/share/example-content, and the Live CD places a symlink to the folder
on the desktop. It contains a few tasteful wallpapers (gone post Flight6),
Openoffice documents, PDFs and media samples. A treasure-trove of 'click
and discover'. None of it is particularly useful, except as demonstrations
of what can be done with Openoffice. And proof that Dapper can really can
play media files - despite Totem's often unhelpful error messages.
Happily Ever After
I like Ubuntu. I just do. There's a simplicity about it that appeals.
Every successive release adds an additional layer of abstraction between
the user and the 'plumbing'. While some might pass this off as
soft-hearted pandering to a demographic that was never meant to use Linux
in the first place, 'Debian for the Lazy', there is a gentle delight in
taking a smooth, working OS and working your way down into its innards.
We already have a vast number of distributions that require you to stack
up bricks until you have built yourself the personalised desktop of your
dreams. Those who build from the base up will learn more than those who do
not. But I estimate a great many more people would be willing, or
encouraged, to dig down. To take a curious peek under the hood, and nip,
tuck and tweak to their liking.
So it is no disservice to the Open Source community to make software
simple and easily configurable, as long the inner workings are never more
than a command-prompt away. Those less inclined to poke and prod within do
not have to, aside from installing a few non-free codecs... Flash...
Java... Ndiswrapper... Maybe wrestling with some hardware demons if
they are unlucky. Okay, so pre-configured distributions like Mepis and
PCLinuxOS make this a little easier. But there is an energy and vitality
behind the Ubuntu community, almost evangelistic in its fervour, that is
hard not to absorb. Only the most hardened and bitter hackers would not
wish, in at least one ventricle of their hearts, a little success upon
Ubuntu. And, little by little, it is getting there.
Dapper won't blow your socks off... but rest assured, the hooks are going
in, and slowly, slowly, release after release, something truly spectacular
is being created.