Thursday, 5 June 2008

Ubuntu Remix - Special Edition for Laptops -

Canonical, the company behind the highly popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, unveiled its Ubuntu Netbook Remix yesterday at the Computex show in Taiwan. The Remix is based on Ubuntu Mobile Edition and is designed specifically for mobile computers with a subnotebook form factor.

The Asus Eee PC completely changed the game for budget mobile computing. Following in the wake of the Eee's success, a number of competing products have emerged with similar features and pricing models. Many of these are offered with some version of the open-source Linux operating system. A customizable Ubuntu-based platform that is designed specifically for such systems could attract considerable interest from hardware makers.

Although the Remix hasn't been released yet in its entirety, the source code is already available for several core components of the unique user interface. We managed to put the pieces together and get a working Netbook Remix desktop environment running on a regular Ubuntu 8.04 system. Unlike the Maemo interface, which uses the lightweight Matchbox window manager, the Remix interface is designed to overlay seamlessly on top of Ubuntu's conventional GNOME desktop environment. The implementation is, overall, quite ingenious in many ways, but there are still places where it feels a bit clunky. The project is clearly early in its development and we will likely see the rough spots even out as it evolves.

The heart of the Remix user interface is its customized Ubuntu Mobile Edition (UME) Launcher which replaces the desktop and provides access to applications and other important system functionality. A series of application categories are displayed on the left side of the launcher and each category provides access to a set of application icons. Conceptually, it is very similar to the Eee's basic mode interface. The contents of the launcher, like the categories and the applications they contain, are taken directly from GNOME's main menu.

The layout and design of the launcher is effective and it is very easy to use. The large size of the buttons makes it finger-friendly, so it will work well on touch-screen devices. Aesthetically, the launcher has a lot of nice visual flourishes like gradients, translucency, and subtle animations, but those are drowned out by the fecal brown that is typical of Ubuntu artwork. Although the launcher is strong conceptually, the implementation still needs some work. The icons look blurry, the text is too small, and the whole thing is a bit too sluggish and processor-hungry. These mostly seem like kinks that can be worked out, so there are no intractable problems.

A glance at the source code reveals that the launcher is programmed in C and uses Clutter, a highly promising rich graphical interface library designed by OpenedHand that is built with OpenGL and provides a GObject-based API. Clutter is still fairly new but is generating considerable excitement in the GNOME development community because it supplies a lot of much-needed graphics functionality that simply isn't supported natively by GTK+. Several prominent GNOME developers have advocated making Clutter a central piece in the next-generation GTK+ toolkit. Clutter is already being used on the desktop by Ubuntu eye-candy expert Mirco Muller to create Ubuntu's experimental new GDM face browser.

The version control system commit logs indicate that a lot of the programming on the launcher is being done by Neil Patel, a software developer who is well-respected in the Ubuntu community and was recently hired by Canonical. Patel is known for his work on the Avant Window Navigator, a very nice Mac OS X panel clone for Linux that takes advantage of cutting-edge compositing functionality and is currently in vogue among GNOME users.

Switching windows

The other major component of the Remix user interface is its unusual window switcher, which is designed to mimic the look and feel of tabs. Program windows are all permanently maximized. Each window places an icon in the window switcher bar and the active window is highlighted as though it is a selected tab. To the right of the icons, the rest of the space is taken up by a single tab that displays the title of the active window and a close button. This is a lot like the way that the Matchbox window manager works in the Maemo environment, except that the window icons are at the top instead of along the side.

The window switcher implementation in the Remix interface is particularly clever. The black bar at the top of the window is a regular GNOME panel and the window switcher tab bar is a panel applet. The permanently-maximized window state is handled by a program called Maximus that runs silently in the background. The Remix environment is still using the regular old Metacity window manager. Users access the launcher by clicking the Home panel applet, which is the Ubuntu logo in the top left-hand corner. The developers were able to create a completely different windowing experience by repurposing standard GNOME components. It's a good approach, because it gives the user a lot of flexibility and makes it possible to keep the regular GNOME panel system.

Although the windowing model is good for devices with small screens and the implementation is clever, the Maximus program is still a bit of a hack and doesn't really work well in certain corner cases. The most visible place where it breaks down is when testing The GIMP, which uses floating palettes. These get maximized and overlap each other, obscuring the main program content and making it impossible to use. Those kinds of bugs will have to be worked out before the software is ready for widespread adoption.

It's Atomic

The Netbook Remix is more than just a pretty face. The Remix will also provide extensive support for hardware components typically found in subnotebook computers. Canonical has worked closely with Intel through the Moblin initiative to ensure strong support for the Atom processor. Intel hopes that Atom will be used with Linux in a wide variety of contexts including Mobile Internet Devices and even vehicle "infotainment" systems.

"At Intel, we see netbooks as an opportunity to expand basic Internet usage throughout the world through simple and affordable devices for consumers," said Intel software and solutions group vice president Doug Fisher in a statement. "The combination of Ubuntu Netbook Remix with Moblin technologies optimized for the Intel Atom processor will deliver a good Internet and media experience on Intel-based netbooks."

Canonical's mobile strategy

The Netbook Remix is part of Canonical's broader strategy for Ubuntu mobility. The company has also partnered with Nokia to work on an experimental Ubuntu ARM port that will bring the distribution to Nokia's Internet Tablet devices and similar products. According to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, portable computing is a high priority for Ubuntu 8.10—codenamed Intrepid Ibex—which is scheduled for release in October.

"Our goal is to deliver a superb user experience while making it simple and cost-effective for device manufacturers to be able to bring their devices to the consumer marketplace," Shuttleworth said in a statement. "Ubuntu has in a very short period transformed the perception of the Linux desktop experience. Many more people will experience Linux for the first time through these devices so working with Canonical, using our UI and leveraging software from the Moblin project is the best way to ensure the netbook experience is a success."

Canonical is positioning itself to take the lead on software in the subnotebook market, but a big piece of the puzzle is still absent: customers. Although Canonical is working closely with Intel on reference designs, there is no word yet about potential commercial adopters for the Netbook Remix. No major OEMs have revealed plans to use it yet and Canonical is still actively looking for new partners in the hardware space. Regardless of whether it gets picked up by hardware makers like Asus, it is sure to be a big hit with Ubuntu's fans. The fact that so many users are installing the regular desktop version of Ubuntu on their Eee laptops is strong indication that there is demand for Ubuntu on subnotebooks.

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