What is it about Ubuntu that has generated such excitement about Linux? To steal a word from Obama's playbook, "Change."
In the four years it's been around, Ubuntu's managed to set itself apart from the rest of the Linux distributions out there by dint of two things: it evolves, and it evolves on a fairly aggressive schedule. They don't let things languish. Part of that is because they have solid backing and a broadening circle of support from the industry, but I'm inclined to believe it's also because they don't just sit around and say "Good enough." They ask, "What can we do now?"
In Mark Shuttleworth's recent e-mail to the Ubuntu developer's mailing list, he outlines the goals for the 8.10 version of Ubuntu, the "Intrepid Ibex" (what happens when they run out of letters?). The big goal this time around is mobile connectivity:
A particular focus for us will be pervasive Internet access, the ability to tap into bandwidth whenever and wherever you happen to be. No longer will you need to be a tethered, domesticated animal -- you'll be able to roam (and goats do roam!) the wild lands and access the Web through a variety of wireless technologies. We want you to be able to move from the office, to the train, and home, staying connected all the way.
Leigh Dyer, at PC Authority in Australia, dropped a wish list that included, among other things, 3G network support. That sounds like a must-have for the kind of always-on-anywhere networking Mark is talking about.
The way Ubuntu has flourished, even without stuff like this yet added to it, is a source of great hope for everyone who cares about open source. It shows that it's not just possible to put something like this out there, but have it flourish and even have it picked up and re-used by commercial partners (e.g., Dell, or the Wal-Mart PC).
That said, I do worry, though, whether or not they can sustain that kind of development pace. Two major releases a year or so is a lot to look forward to, and I do worry about the possibility of developer burnout, unrealistic goal-setting, and many other things that could cause Ubuntu's development to stagnate. I'm also learning that it's not enough to say "Well, if they don't do it, someone else can fork it," because the code is one thing, but a strong and insightful development team is another entirely. Good programmers are tough enough to find; a collection of good programmers who can work together is even tougher to assemble.
What I hope for most from Ubuntu is not just that it contains this or that feature -- although I have my own wish list which I should publish -- but that it earns a position of respect alongside Windows and the Mac. And I'd also hope that such a thing doesn't come from Windows or the Mac being brought low, but by Ubuntu reaching as high as it can.