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Ubuntu 9.10: The Karmic Koala Benchmarked And Reviewed

There is no question about it: 9.10 is an ambitious release for Ubuntu. There are more new features and changes to previous defaults than any other previous version. With the tight integration of Ubuntu One, Tomboy Notes, Evolution, and Empathy, along with the new theming elements, one can begin to see Ubuntu becoming its own animal and not just another slight variation of Linux with GNOME. I'll give Canonical a ten for design, but I have to give it a zero for execution. If 8.10 was a fail, 9.10 is an epic one.

Four days and several handfuls of my own hair later, my systems were finally running the greatest Ubuntu to ever hit the wires. Unfortunately, I'm referring to version 9.04, and it's the exact setup I began with. The importance of a smooth release cannot be understated. This holds true especially with Linux distributions. When it comes to free software, there is no monetary commitment. However, a commitment still exists. I spent four days preparing for, installing, and subsequently un-installing Karmic, then re-installing Jaunty. If I wasn't a tech reviewer, I would have spent my weekend installing an unusable OS, gone a full week without a working system, then spent the following weekend getting back to where I started. For the average person with a regular job, that is a significant time commitment, and a week without a PC is unacceptable.

Whenever a Linux distribution gains a large following and begins to see mainstream attention, it can no longer afford to have a marred product launch. Canonical, by launching a new version of Ubuntu every six months, has made the risk of a failed launch even more fatal. Most users who have a bad experience with 9.10 will most likely not try it again, even if many of the issues are eventually resolved. At this point, why not just wait for the next version to come out in six months? Therefore, individual versions typically do not get an opportunity to redeem themselves. Needless to say, this assumes that the average user will want to try again at all. This effect can be devastating to novice users or those with little or no Linux experience. And with an estimated market share of about 1%, that's basically everyone.

The previous October release of Ubuntu, version 8.10 “Intrepid Ibex” also had a problematic launch, plagued by poorer performance and more bugs than its predecessor, 8.04 “Hardy Heron.” The release directly after Intrepid, 9.04 “Jaunty Jackalope,” had a flawless release and is still what I consider the best OS for my money. But 9.04 was met with minimal fanfare. Why? Much of momentum from 8.04 “Hardy Heron,” another successful launch, was lost because Intrepid was such a letdown.

Compounding the letdown was the uncharacteristic amount of confidence from Canonical. The release schedule for Karmic was incredibly ambitious. There was only one beta and only one release candidate, the former just one month out from the final, the latter only one week. Though this is not a departure from previous release schedules, consider the unprecedented amount of changes that were set to occur in 9.10 and you really have to question the reasons for such confidence. Canonical should have heeded the advice of the great Han Solo: “don't get cocky.”

The press also shares some of the blame for this. Much of the hype surrounding 9.10 was a recurrence of the too-early pro-Vista coverage that clearly jumped the gun. Betas and release candidates are not final products, and reviewing an OS in a virtual machine doesn't count. Don't we all know what happens when we ass-u-me?

The fact is that Linux has been around for well over a decade, and this is not the first time that mainstream adoption appeared to be a real possibility. Mandriva (then Mandrake), Red Hat, and SuSE all used to be available in a retail box at Best Buy in the late nineties. Mandriva has since plummeted in popularity and the other two never really made it out of the enterprise sector.

Another troubling trend with Ubuntu 9.10 is the move to Ubuntu-only apps and services. Ubuntu One is great; I honestly don't know how I got through life without a backup/sync service. But a Mac, Windows, or at least a general Linux client would make it a better option. Most people who use Ubuntu do not use it exclusively, making Ubuntu One a niche service. In my opinion, Empathy is another bad call. Though I do like the fact that it replaces two apps (Pidgin and Ekiga), people were happy with Pidgin. Empathy may be a better app, but this is a situation where “if isn't broke, don't fix it.” Pidgin did the job, it's available on all three major platforms, and people liked it. I'm not saying that Empathy isn't the way to go in the future, but I feel that it's a few releases premature. It's perfectly alright for distributions like Fedora and openSuSE to play fast and loose with new features--those distros aren't much more than testbeds for their retail counterparts (Red Hat and SuSE, respectively). Ubuntu, on the other hand, is trying to be the user-friendly desktop operating system for everyone from little Timmy to Grandma. Perhaps restraint when it comes to new features is more important than getting the latest technology included by default.

All of this negativity aside, this is a review of Ubuntu 9.10 “Karmic Koala” and not all of Ubuntu. Tom's Hardware still recommends Ubuntu 9.04 “Jaunty Jackalope” as our free OS of choice, and you can still grab a copy here. Hopefully, Canonical can learn from its mistakes and make version 10.04 “Lucid Lynx” succeed in the areas that Karmic failed (namely, execution). It's a shame, because the material to make the greatest desktop Linux OS is here in Karmic. But the crippling bugs and poor launch mar the entire product. Interestingly, there are reports that the KDE variant of Ubuntu, Kubuntu, managed to avoid all of these pitfalls and became a hit in those circles. Better luck next time.

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