Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's dictator-for-life, has been discussing usability in public and on his blog for the last six months. His call for a GNU/Linux desktop that surpasses Apple's for usability sounds promising, and you might hope, like me, that Ubuntu 8.10 a.k.a. Intrepid Ibex -- is the first effort towards fulfilling this ambition.
But, if anything, the release suggests that the goal may take a bit longer than anyone hopes. Like any GNU/Linux distribution, Ubuntu 8.10 benefits from the constant increases in usability by the developers of GNOME and other desktops. It also draws upon the usability added in past releases, which have made Ubuntu one of the most user-friendly distributions available. But sadly, whether Intrepid's new features add to usability is hit and miss. Moreover, not only do one or two new features raise minor security issues, and one was so harmful that it was removed between the betas and the final release.
Ubuntu's default installer has changed little in Intrepid Ibex. It is still the seven-step process in which you set the language, time zone, keyboard, partitioning and users. If you want more control -- including a choice of packages -- you still have to download a CD image with the alternate installer, which is a modified version of Debian's. A merging of the two installers would seem a logical step in usability, but it hasn't happened in Intrepid.
The two major changes in the default installer are both partly unsatisfactory. The first is the option to install only free software, which is available on the startup screen by selecting F6 -> F6 -> Free software only. This option addresses the wish by some users to avoid kernel modules that depend on proprietary firmware blobs. The option greatly reduces the chances that wireless cards will work, but those who want a completely free system may be willing to take that risk.
Unfortunately, according to the release notes, this option is broken. However, you can still achieve the intent of the option after installation by removing the linux-restricted-modules-2.6.27-7-generic package, which apparently contains all the proprietary blobs.
The other change is a graphical depiction of hard drives on the partition. If you select Guided partitioning, you can use the graphic to resize partitions. The only trouble is, the graphic lacks a legend. You need to select manual partitioning in order to discover that the graphic uses blue for Ubuntu, green for other versions of GNU/Linux, and orange for the swap partition -- and that these colors do not, in fact, represent filesystem formats, as an experienced user probably expects.
Ubuntu's default installer is still more or less the same reliable and simple tool it has always been. But, paradoxically, these two efforts at increased usability actually decrease its usability slightly.
However, once you change the wallpaper, Intrepid's desktop is a thoroughly modern one, built on a 2.6.27 Linux kernel and GNOME 2.24.1. Other software matches this base, with Firefox 3.03, GIMP 2.6, and Pidgin 2.5.2 heading the list. The sole exception is OpenOffice.org, whose version is 2.4, although version 3.0 was released a week before Intrepid.