Ubuntu 10.10, codenamed Maverick Meerkat, is still two months from its final release. However, if the first alpha and the forecasts about it are an accurate indication, the release is already taking on a character all its own.
Specifically, Maverick may be the release in which the Ubuntu version of GNOME differs from generic GNOME to the point where it should be recognized as a separate desktop -- call it Ubuntu GNOME.
Of course, at this point, the character of the release could change. If you look at the blueprints for the release, you will notice that many features are incomplete, or still to be implemented at all. Still, the fact that many of the visible desktop changes are among the first implemented may suggest the emphasis that Ubuntu places upon them (although the ease of implementation or the enthusiasm of the developers may be factors, as well.) At any rate, this is a change that has been coming for at least a year, and in Maverick it is starting to become noticeable. Although all the changes in Maverick do not contribute to this impression, many do.
Those who want to explore Maverick for themselves can download one of the daily build Live CDs. Alternatively, you can see some of the new features in Maverick through the collection of MaverickMovies, a selection of videos about major features. Many of the videos are matched with inappropriate music, but if you turn the sound off, you can at least see some of the upcoming features. You can also try installing from the Live CD to a hard drive, although, if you do, the usual warnings about doing serious work on unstable software apply.
Not all the changes in Maverick contribute to the sense that Ubuntu is developing its own sub-version of GNOME. Of these neutral changes, the most obvious is the installation program.
The installer also features a simpler, starker look. What is most obvious, though, are the adjustments in functionality.
Over the years, Ubuntu has done its best to keep its installer simple. In the 10.10 release, simplicity obviously remains the goal, and some steps, such as the placement of the startup options in the installer, rather than a separate menu and reducing them to two -- Try Ubuntu and Install Ubuntu -- continue the move toward simplicity. So does the simplified partitioner, in which the options are reduced to automatically using the whole disk and manual partitioning.
However, at the same time, experience has apparently taught Ubuntu developers that more complexity is needed. Before you can start making any choices, the installer suggests that "for best results" you need 2.7 gigabytes of hard drive space, a system plugged into a power source (and not, apparently, one running from a battery), and an Ethernet connection (rather than a wireless one).
The installer also offers an option to install proprietary software -- mostly music codecs -- "if it is needed for a better experience" and another to choose the hard drive. Only then does the 10.10 installer settle into the choices of previous versions, such as the time zone, keyboard, and user account, or encrypting the drive.
Many of the other features of the Maverick alpha are simple version changes of standard features and applications, such as the GNOME and KDE desktops, or the Linux kernel. Still others are changes in default applications, such as the replacement of F-Spot with Shotwell. For the most part, though, such changes have minimal effects on the Ubuntu menus' content or order. If you know earlier versions of Ubuntu, you are unlikely to have much trouble navigating the Maverick menus.
Yet the most noticeable changes are those that are starting to make the experience of working in GNOME different in Ubuntu than in any other distribution.
So far, there is no implementation of the so-called "windicators" -- the equivalent in windows of the panel's notification tray on the desktop, and elements that may supercede the window's bottom status bar. Those who are curious about whether the benefits of windicators can justify having the title bar buttons on the left side of the window will have to wait to see.
Meanwhile, though, they will have to adjust to yet another change in the title bar buttons. Where in the previous 10.04 release, the buttons from left to right were minimize, maximize and close, in 10.10, the order is now close, minimize, and maximize -- a change that will be responsible for many mis-clicks, I suspect, while users adjust.
Another still-to-be-implemented feature (at least in the nightly build that I am currently investigating) is Multitouch, which adds touch-screen capacities to the desktop.