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The next red-letter day for Ubuntu fans will be April 24, when Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Long Term Support) arrives. Mark Shuttleworth, the CEO of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, guarantees that the next version of the popular Linux distribution will make it on time, with something for enterprise, desktop, and Internet users.
In an interview, Shuttleworth made the point that, while many executives have yet to realize it, "Open source software projects and Linux distros are actually better than proprietary companies at hitting deadlines." In particular, Shuttleworth says, "Companies are now comparing Linux with Vista, and it's clear that's Linux does a better job of meeting people's expectations.
"When you look at people's expectations, proprietary software gives the impression that its makers can deliver on time. It's top-down, it's how people think businesses should work, but bottom-up innovation actually is more timely. This is a real credit for free software, and it's also a real challenge for the proprietary guys to meet." Nowadays, it's "very difficult to know when proprietary software and operating systems will be out."
Hitting release dates is more important to Shuttleworth than ever before because Ubuntu 8.04 is aimed straight at enterprise server needs. "Ubuntu 8.04 LTS is meant to be great for long-term deployments. For the server version, we'll be supporting it for five years, and for three years for the desktop. For businesses, this length of support is vital. They can't switch operating systems quickly."
This time around, unlike the last LTS, 6.06, which came out in June 2006, Canonical will not be going it mostly alone for business deployments of Ubuntu. Shuttleworth says, "The big difference is how other companies are supporting it. Sun is certifying it on its x86 server line. They're the first major vendor do this. While it's not a preload, by giving it formal certification and commitment across the x86 line, Linux's traditional sweet spot, we hope businesses will give it a try."
Shuttleworth says that "all the major server vendors -- IBM, Dell, Sun, Hewlett-Packard -- are now supporting Ubuntu with engineering. It's delivering great out-of-box server performance."
What Canonical gets out of this focus on the server, as opposed to the desktop, is that "70% of our business comes from server support. So, the state of adoption for server is very significant for Canonical." At the same time, "Customers and ISVs (independent software vendors) are asking for Ubuntu server software."
The South African software entrepreneur added that Canonical will be shipping "point" hardware updates for Ubuntu 8.04 that will start three months after 8.04 arrives and then be released every six months, which will let Ubuntu LTS support new CPU features as they arrive from the chip vendors.
At the same time, Ubuntu will continue to release newer versions of the distribution on its current schedule. So, the first hardware update for 8.04 will arrive in July, and it will be followed in October by Ubuntu 8.10. This, Shuttleworth believes, will lead to a "very predictable, steady release schedule. I hope that other Linux distros will adopt a similar release cadence. It should result in great benefits for all Linux distros."
Don't think with all this server talk that Shuttleworth has forgotten about the desktop. He hasn't. "We've been trying to reduce the friction for users trying Ubuntu." In particular, Shuttleworth is pleased with how Wubi has worked out.
With Wubi, any Windows user, even a Vista user, can install Ubuntu 8.04 on any modern system just as if it were a normal Windows application. There's no need to create a CD to boot from, no need to repartition the hard drive, no need to use a boot-loader.
Shuttleworth says that, besides just making it so easy that almost any Windows users can give Linux a try, it's a perfect example of how "innovation happens in the community and on the edges. Now Wubi has been picked up by the core developers and it's a major Ubuntu feature. I'd like to see other distros pick it up and make 'Wubis' of their own. The more users get to know Linux, the better for all of us."
As for digital rights management, Shuttleworth says he "longs for the day when the content industry sees that DRM is a real inhibition to their new business markets and they also adopt patent free codexes." Still, "We've done a lot of work with what can be done with media playback. We've integrated music stores with Rhythmbox, and F-Spot with Flickr." In addition, "Ubuntu 8.04 includes the ability to stream video in tight integration with MythTV. This takes some of the voodoo out of Myth. You'll no longer need to know which goats to sacrifice at what phase of moon to view MythTV streams on Ubuntu."
Taken all-in-all, Shuttleworth feels that Ubuntu users will find Ubuntu 8.04 to be a great distribution, whether they intend to use it in their businesses, on their desktops, or to introduce new users to Linux.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.