Ubuntu 15.04 review
If it’s spring, that must mean a new release of Ubuntu. This latest one is codenamed the “Vivid Vervet”, but – as has become common for Ubuntu releases – you’ll have to squint to spot the difference between this and last autumn’s “Utopic Unicorn”.
In fact, Ubuntu 15.04 raises the bar when it comes to inconspicuous updates. From a user perspective, the only noticeable change is to application menus, which now appear in their respective windows rather than at the top of the screen. Such behaviour has been optional since 14.04 – and indeed was the default in Ubuntu 10.10 and before – so as user-experience updates go, this isn’t exactly a brave new world.
Ubuntu 15.04 review: what’s new?
There are bigger changes to be found beneath the surface of Ubuntu 15.04. Internally, Canonical’s upstart system (which launches jobs and services) has been replaced by systemd, following the latter’s acceptance into Debian, on which Ubuntu is based. Desktop users shouldn’t notice any difference, but administrators will need to get to grips with systemd’s more complex way of doing things – you’ll find a guide to switching at pcpro.link/249systemd.
The Linux kernel has been updated too, to version 3.19.3, which brings improved support for IPv6 and various hardware driver updates. Unfortunately, kernel 4.0 arrived too late in the Ubuntu development cycle to make it into this release – a shame, since in addition to even newer drivers, it adds the ability to patch the kernel without rebooting the system.
And that, in the standard distribution, is pretty much it for updates. Of course, Ubuntu still has its numerous variant “flavours” such as Kubuntu, Xubuntu and so forth – as well as the newly approved Ubuntu MATE distribution, based on the friendly MATE desktop – which may bring their own interface tweaks. Inescapably, though, the base Ubuntu 15.04 release feels like a non-event.
That isn’t necessarily a criticism of the platform as a whole. Ubuntu is as capable and accessible as it ever was, and just as free. But it’s hard not to feel a touch of dismay at the apparent lack of progress on show, especially in light of all the ambitious talk that’s been coming out of Canonical in the past few years. Originally Ubuntu was supposed to be using the brand new touch-friendly Unity 8 desktop by now, running on Canonical’s home-grown Mir display server. But long delays have left both upgrades years behind schedule; the new front-end isn’t now expected to be properly ready for a stable desktop until 2016 (if you want to try it out before then, the recommended approach is to use the daily “Desktop Next” preview image).
Ubuntu 15.04 review: brave new world
Then there’s the much-touted idea of convergence, which integrates the desktop OS with the smartphone-orientated Ubuntu Touch distribution. When first floated in 2012, this sounded like an idea that could have propelled Ubuntu into the mainstream, and it was supported by big plans for tablets and smart TVs. Again, though, the reality has been less rosy: in 2013, the Ubuntu Edge smartphone that would have been Ubuntu Touch’s first flagship fell well short of its crowdfunding target and was axed. Two years on, there’s just one consumer Ubuntu smartphone available, while Ubuntu tablets and TVs haven’t even got that far.
How much this matters is an open question. Ubuntu isn’t driven by profit, so it doesn’t need to chase market share, or indeed relevance. However, as big plans have faltered, and innovation on the desktop OS appears to have ground to a halt, the scent of stagnation has started to hang around the platform.
Perhaps that’s a sign that it’s time for Canonical to take the opposite tack to Microsoft and move to less frequent releases, or at least less arbitrarily timetabled ones. Ubuntu is stable enough now not to need constant updating, and in this case waiting on the Linux kernel 4.0 kernel would have made for a much more compelling release. Canonical’s engineers, meanwhile, could benefit from spending more time working on long-promised upgrades, and less time patching and polishing half-baked versions of things for a biannual release.
Ubuntu 15.04 review: verdict
If you’re looking for a free, friendly and powerful OS for desktops and servers, Ubuntu is still an easy Linux distribution to recommend. But even for established Ubuntu users this update is neither practically nor emotionally compelling. If Canonical seriously wants Ubuntu to make more of a mainstream impact, Ubuntu 15.04 – a barely necessary update rolled out to serve a timetable rather than a strategy – is precisely the sort of thing it needs to stop releasing.