Canonical has released the first alpha version of Ubuntu 11.04, offering fans of the open source Linux operating system an early glimpse at the next major version.
The Alpha 1 Release of Ubuntu 11.04, also known as "Natty Narwhal," is intended as a "developer snapshot" of the next major Ubuntu version, which is due in April.
That version has already generated considerable interest and controversy in recent weeks, most notably because of Canonical's announced decision to use the 3D-enabled Unity interface in the desktop version of the software as well as the Wayland graphics system.
Natty Narwhal Alpha 1 can be downloaded from the project's website, though it's a very early release and not intended for production systems. Users currently running Ubuntu 10.10 on a desktop system can upgrade by pressing Alt+F2 and typing "update-manager -d" (without the quotes) into the command box.
Two more alpha releases of Ubuntu 11.04 are planned for after this one, followed by a beta version due roughly a month before Natty Narwhal's scheduled official release on April 28.
Under the hood
Unity is indeed the default desktop interface in this new Ubuntu version, but it's only partially implemented so far. Currently, the Unity Launcher is available for launching applications that are pinned to the launcher and for switching among running applications.
Users can choose to run either Ubuntu Desktop, which requires 3D driver support and offers Unity by default, or the Ubuntu Classic Session, which is based on the traditional GNOME desktop and supports all video hardware and video drivers, Canonical says.
Ubuntu 11.04 Alpha 1 also includes version 2.6.37-rc3 of the Linux kernel, which is based on the latest mainline release candidate. This represents a major update from version 2.6.35, which is what's used in Maverick Meerkat or Ubuntu 10.10. By the time Natty Narwhal releases officially next spring, it is expected to include version 2.6.38, which will offer considerable speed improvements under heavy loads.
The current kernel update includes a number of desktop-related responsiveness improvements along with AppArmor for security and multiple improvements to virtualisation performance.
A community effort
Alpha versions may not be suitable for production use, but they're a great way to see what's coming.