There's never any shortage of excitement and anticipation surrounding the major updates to Ubuntu Linux that arrive twice each year, and Thursday's brand-new release is no exception.
This time, however, the timing is particularly fortuitous.
As the PC-using world braces itself not just for the release of Windows 8 next week but also the end of life of Windows XP in 2014, the new Ubuntu 12.10 "Quantal Quetzal" offers a raft of widely anticipated new features and a fresh alternative to what Canonical calls "the pain of Windows 8."
I spoke on Wednesday with Steve George, Canonical's vice president of communications and products, about this latest desktop release and the OS landscape facing users today. Here's a rundown of what he told me.
In a nutshell, the desktop version of Ubuntu 12.10 focuses on two key areas, both driven by users' increasing tendency to spend their days in a mix of local and online apps, George said.
"Ultimately, Ubuntu needs to respond to this by drawing the online and offline worlds together," he explained.
Accordingly, the first area of focus in this new release is the Unity Dash, which has essentially been extended to incorporate the online world.
"The important thing about the Dash is that it's a search method rather than just about files and folders," George told me. "For this release, not only will it search for documents on your local hard drive, but also in Google Docs, for example, for files that are online.
"When I look for content, what I want to find is all of my content, whether online or off," he added.
"It was important for us to get the feature out there, listen to what people had to say, make the changes, and respond to user requests," George said. "We want to make sure we're listening to that. We take user privacy very seriously."
The second big focus area in Ubuntu Linux 12.10 is applications, George told me.
Specifically, "we've added the ability to put Web apps into the local environment," he said.
So, for example, users can now put the Gmail icon directly into the Ubuntu launcher. Then, when they launch it, Ubuntu automatically opens a separate window with Gmail in it without requiring that users first launch their browser.
From the user perspective, it's designed to make online apps feel just the same as local apps.
"It obeys all the conventions you'd expect of a local app," George noted. "We've added a bunch of these and put them into the Ubuntu Software Center. We've also shown developers how they can add more."
'It's a big deal for them'
Last but not least, George had a message for small businesses: "If you're on XP, which a lot of businesses are, it's a great time to re-look at your desktop strategy," he said. "Windows 8 is a challenge to explain to users--it's a big deal for them."
Meanwhile, with the arrival of technologies like Google Docs and virtualization, "a lot of the tie-in Microsoft has to people's data is disappearing," he pointed out. "A lot of the friction that used to stop people from using alternative desktops has been massively reduced over the past few years."
Ubuntu 12.10 is now available as a free download from the project site.