Stephen King once observed that the first review of his books was important because later ones often borrowed its opinions. Who did the first review of Ubuntu 8.04 better known as Hardy Heron is debatable, but something of the same consensus seems to have hit tech journalists, with the majority proclaiming that the release shows that GNU/Linux has finally produced a challenger to Windows.
However, to the veteran user, such claims must seem exaggerated, no matter how well meaning. Nor are they nearly as interesting as Ubuntu's effort to walk between the extremes of free software purity and proprietary ease-of-use. This last effort is one that all distributions must face sooner or later, but it is particularly interesting in Ubuntu's case because of its position as the best-known (and almost certainly the most widely used) distro.
As the Ubuntu team would undoubtedly be the first to admit, some of the credit that Hardy Heron is receiving is not due to any action on its part beyond the wish to package the latest free software. When reviewers praise Ubuntu for the ability to display clocks for multiple timezones, for example, they really should be praising GNOME for its 2.22 release. Similarly, improved sound capability is due to the option to use PulseAudio rather than ALSA to manage sound, while improved integration of the browser into the desktop is due to the joint efforts of GNOME and Mozilla. However, just as defragging and anti-virus software never existed until they were first bundled with Windows, for many people, these enhancements never existed until bundled with Ubuntu.
That's not to say that Ubuntu doesn't deserve credit for how it has handled the bundling. For several releases, Ubuntu has been one of the few distributions to install SCIM by default to enable on-the-fly keyboard layout changes. And, proceeding through the Ubuntu default installer, you can't help feeling that, for once, somebody is explaining these matters in standard English rather than the Geek dialect. The same is true of many system messages on the desktop, although the dialog for starting system utilities is still likely to puzzle newcomers with its discussion of "privileges" and "authentication." Although Ubuntu has in some ways been coasting on its past reputation for several releases, elements like its simplified menu go a long way towards suggesting that its developers take the slogan of "Linux for Human Beings" seriously.
However, the list of new applications or functionality in Hardy Heron is relatively modest compared to, say, a new Fedora release. One of the few exceptions is Wubi, which allows users to install a copy of Ubuntu on an existing Windows partition rather than creating a new one. Another is PolicyKit, which helps users to fine-tune what system settings an everyday user account can edit; it's a useful tool, but with a horror of an interface guaranteed to intimidate -- well, the hardiest. The latest Ubuntu release is also one of the first distros to include Brasero, a CD/DVD burner that strikes a balance between the limited controls found in the Nautilus file manager and full-featured burners such as K3B and GnomeBaker. But, for the most part, you will need to search the desktop and the CD carefully to find innovations in most areas.
The main place where innovation is happening rapidly seems to be in Ubuntu's efforts to balance the concept of free software with the drive toward commercialism by Canonical, Ubuntu's face in business. Both Ubuntu's continued good will among free software projects and Canonical's business model depends on the distribution being relatively faithful to community standards -- which, in practice, means tolerating proprietary software in the distribution as little as possible. Yet, at the same time, users want the 3-D drivers needed for games and compositing window managers, to say nothing of their Flash and multimedia codecs. Refuse to ship them, and the only result is the rise of unofficial repositories, which are not only out of the distro's control but often compound compatibility problems for users.