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.
Credit where it's due
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.
Freedom vs. utility
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.
Ubuntu's response to this dilemma has always been interesting, and sometimes painful to watch. Rather than refer openly to proprietary or even non-free drivers or applications, it has preferred to call them "extras" or "restricted" software, obscuring their nature. But, by whatever name, it has seemed unsure what to do with them. On the one hand, Ubuntu developer Matthew Garrett condemned Automatix, a tool for providing proprietary elements as "dangerous" (and probably he was right). Yet, on the other hand, a few releases ago, Ubuntu was under fire for the indiscriminate inclusion of non-free wireless drivers.
Ubuntu has also tried to address the issue with Gobuntu, a variant that included only free software. Then, a few weeks ago, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth suggested that, given the relative lack of interest in Gobuntu, the Ubuntu family might be better served by shutting down Gobuntu and supporting GNewSense, an Ubuntu-derivative with the same aims that is somewhat farther along in its goals.
In the last couple of releases, Ubuntu has wobbled in much the same way. The previous release or two provided a Restricted Drivers Manager in the Systems menu for loading proprietary elements -- although with such vague language that new users must have been puzzled. When you logged in for the first time, a popup message would mention that proprietary drivers were available. Now, in Hardy Heron, the name has been further obscured to the Hardware Drivers Manager, and the popup message no longer appears, leaving users to their proprietary pieces in the graphical package manager.
Aside from drivers for ATI and NVidia graphics cards, most of this material can be found the Ubuntu Restricted Extras package, which includes such elements as a Flash plugin, Java, Microsoft Core fonts and MP3 codecs, and is faintly reminiscent of Automatix. At the same time, you can also choose to enable Gnash, the free Flash replacement, assuming you know enough to look for it.
Should you choose, you can also install WINE to run Windows applications under GNU/Linux, in which case its configuration tool is placed prominently in the top-level of the main menu. Then, just to complicate matters, the Add/Remove Software tool includes a filter for a third party -- read "commercial," and therefore, most likely, proprietary -- software, although the repository is not enabled by default and currently contains nothing.
In short, Hardy Heron does not mark any decision on where Ubuntu stands on the issue of including proprietary elements. If you are unkind, you might say that Ubuntu is still waffling and trying to have it both ways, either hiding or excluding the non-free from the default install, but making it readily available for those in the know. If you are more generous, you might say that Ubuntu is in a classic double-bind, under pressure to adhere to free software standards by the community, yet unable to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone so long as commercialization remains a goal. One of the results is that Ubuntu seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time on the problem, but, under the present conditions, that seems unavoidable.
There are plenty of additional minor enhancements -- unsurprising, given that Hardy Heron is one of the periodic releases for which three-year support is promised -- but most of them are only of interest if they help you to enable your particular hardware. In general, Ubuntu 8.04 is a release that consolidates existing tendencies rather than introduces revolutionary changes, a fact that makes the hype heaped upon it seem all the more inappropriate.
Ubuntu, like any of dozens of other distributions, has been ready for the desktop for some years. Hardy Heron simply makes it incrementally more so, while still not resolving the essentially unresolvable debate of how to make free and proprietary elements co-exist. It's a debate that is far from unique to Ubuntu, but one whose ambiguities seem to be stronger with every release of that distribution.