For many users looking beyond the worlds of Windows and Macintosh, Ubuntu Linux is the go-to choice. It's not hard to see why: Ubuntu's commercial parent Canonical has arguably done more than any other Linux distributor to popularise open source operating systems to the public, with its free Ubuntu Desktop Edition OS. It's arguably the most accessible, easiest-to-install and easiest-to-operate operating system you'll find at the price.
There are several branches within the Ubuntu family, including 32bit and 64bit versions taking the KDE rather than Gnome desktop interface and perhaps most radical of all, Ubuntu Netbook Edition.
Radical, because unlike the aforementioned KDE and Gnome versions, which owe their look and feel somewhat to Windows and Mac respectively, Ubuntu Netbook Edition is exploring new interface ground. Instead of a familiar taskbar at the bottom or top, and in place Docks and Start Menus, it has just a dock-like app launcher ranged up the left side.
Ubuntu Netbook Edition started life as Netbook Remix, a project within the Linux community to create an OS more suited to the limited resolution and screen size of the ubiquitous Wintel netbook. This distribution loses the Remix tag, and the new-style interface has garnered its own name: Unity.
So by default, the left-side launch dock includes your main apps: Firefox, Empathy instant messenger, Evolution Mail, Cheese webcam, Rhythmbox music player, Ubuntu Software Center, Workspaces, Files & Folders (cf Windows Explorer/OS X Finder), Applications folder and Trash. You can add or remove shortcuts by right-clicking. You can also click the top-left Ubuntu cog to see a full screen graphic of app categories.
Most apps fill the entire display when launched, save the dock launcher which is always visible, maximising working space.
We tried Ubuntu Netbook Edition on a Samsung N110 netbook, which ran reasonably smoothly, although the graphical eye candy, with animation and transparency effects, could slow it down at times.
But the headline news is not that Canonical has made available an Ubuntu for netbooks. It's that the Unity interface is about to undergo some serious development, to become the default look and feel of the next generation of Ubuntu. Starting with the next 11.04 release in April, Ubuntu Desktop will be no more. In its place will be this Unity-driven interface.
For now, Ubuntu Netbook Edition shows a novel new way to interact with a computer, innovating beyond the usual copycat look of most Linux to date. For the future, though, it provides an intriguing glimpse into a fresh new paradigm for the main branch of Ubuntu Linux.