Natty Narwhal: The first Linux for newbies?

With its new Unity interface, Ubuntu 11.04 taps the mobile world for a way to help Windows users across the divide.

Whenever a new version of an operating system is released, it's common to see a wave of reviews following on its heels, assessing how the software compares with what came before it and weighing its new pros and cons.

That's certainly been the case with Canonical's Ubuntu 11.04, or "Natty Narwhal," which was officially released last week. This time, however, it seems fair to say the scrutiny has been more intense than usual.

For those who haven't been following it closely, Natty Narwhal is the first desktop Ubuntu Linux release to use the Unity desktop shell by default -- a major, ground-shaking departure from the software's traditional use of GNOME. It's also the place several other significant decisions for the free and open source operating system can be seen, such as the adoption of the Compiz window manager.

The result is nothing short of a new direction for Ubuntu, as Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth explained last week. No wonder, then, that the reviews have been so numerous and so painstaking.

Borrowing from the Mobile Arena

Unity was first introduced in Ubuntu 10.10's Netbook Edition last fall, and it mimics many elements of today's mobile operating systems. (Check out our slideshow to get a taste of Natty Narwhal.)

With a clean, clutter-free design, Unity lets users personalize their PCs with apps much the way they're accustomed to doing in the smartphone and tablet arenas.

Unity can still be disabled and replaced with a traditional GNOME interface instead, of course. Still, it's significant that Canonical has chosen Unity as the direction it wants to follow by default and for the future.

'For the Everyday Computer User'

"With this release Ubuntu will recruit an entirely new wave of users to free software," Canonical CEO Jane Silber said in a statement announcing the software's release. "Ubuntu 11.04 is a high watermark for what has been achieved with open-source technologies for the everyday computer user."

I'm still in the process of messing around with Unity and deciding if it's something I want to keep. The more time I spend with it, though, the more I think Natty Narwhal may indeed be the first Linux release truly designed for newcomers to the operating system, as Silber suggests.

Let me hasten to add that I'm not saying this because Linux has been hard to use or somehow unsuitable for newcomers in the past -- Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, in particular, have been making it easy for a long time. But there's been a perception for some that Linux is just for geeks.

Now, Unity promises to change all that.

A Bridge Across the Divide

Many longtime Linux fans aren't particularly thrilled with Unity, as you can see in some of the reviews. Some are even saying that Ubuntu has lost its way.

I'm not so sure. If gaining more widespread adoption really is a goal for Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular, then this is just what was needed: a distribution that's welcoming and easy for Windows users to get used to.

Ubuntu may never have been hard to use, at least not in recent memory, but it's always been different from Windows, which is what most people have grown up on. By tapping into consumers' new familiarity with mobile operating systems, Ubuntu has found an alternate bridge to help them cross that divide.

Longtime Linux users may not want to stick with Unity. But I'm not sure that matters. Linux fans, after all, can easily replace Unity, if they want; they also have myriad other distributions to choose from. What Ubuntu -- and maybe even Linux -- needed, however, was a compelling alternative for Windows users, and I think that may just be what Natty Narwhal delivers.

The next challenge for Linux, as I see it, is marketing. But that's a subject for another column.

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