On the Bench: Ulteo Sirius Alpha
The open source movement has it’s share of heroes. Individuals that can motivate groups of individuals and rally them behind a certain part of the development process. People like GaÃ«l Duval, who created the Mandrake (now Mandriva) distribution, one of the most accessible and user-friendly distributions for W2L migrators. Enough has been said about him being fired from the company he helped to found. Today is today and GaÃ«l Duval is putting himself behind a new project, a new distribution, a new way of using open source software.
The concept -as I understand it- is not just to build a new distribution. The concept is closer to the Web 2.0 buzz: to create an always accessible desktop environment, no matter where you are. Ulteo is aiming to be one of the most userfriendly and most easy to main Linux distribution. The concept encompasses an upgrade function that always and automatically checks whether updates and upgrades are available and implements them seamlessly.
I will look at the alpha release of the Ulteo distribution later, but I have a few words to say about the concept as well. It is good to have a vision. Visions can motivate, can gather resources, can provide direction for creative talent. In this case the vision is not novel, but we may finally have achieved the technological level and access to it at reasonable enough prices to make it happen. The Google Desktop which comprises of more and more webbased productivity tools or the Windows Live environment are other nascent signs of things to come. One of the key arguments in the development of always accessible desktops and documents is the issue of privacy, of integrity of your documents since they are/will be stored on someone else’s server. It will be interesting to see how that part of mr. Duval’s vision pans out. Web 2.0 is a buzz word, but you can see a definite trend to provide server-based applications accessible through thin-client like setups.
Secondly, do I need a new Linux distribution to make that happen? Today I carry along a 10 Gb USB harddrive filled with about 1 Gb of portable applications ranging from OpenOffice.org, Abiword, Thunderbird, Firefox to more esoteric network tools. That leaves me 9 Gb for my documents and I only need a USB socket to plug it in. With so many computers using Windows I hardly have a problem to use it. There isn’t even a need to reboot. What can the new Ulteo provide in functionality that wasn’t provided already by Mandrake Move in the past or by the many live distributions today? In the November 2006 issue of Linux Format there were some screenshots of Ulteo running inside a webbrowser and it would be interesting to see how this is implemented on a larger scale as well.
Well, that was a lengthy introduction for a review of a new distribution, but I do believe that in this case it is warranted. Ulteo is not just the new distribution. The alpha release is the first step for the whole concept. And since it is an alpha release there is a need to be careful with the review. You can’t judge the quality of a house based on the truck with concrete that just entered the construction site.
First boot and installation
Ulteo is based on Ubuntu and hence it boots up as a live CD. From then on it is as easy as double-clicking the install button. The usual six step process appears where you can set the language, the keyboard, the time zone, your name and password and the partition table. In step 6 you commit the whole thing. While the install continues there is some time to look at the KDE desktop. For now Ulteo only comes with KDE, but other desktops are part of the roadmap. It does make sense for W2L migration to look at KDE first. (release notes here http://www.ulteo.com/main/sirius_release_notes.php)
Like Ubuntu, Ulteo is not covering you with tons of application but with a decent selection. Hence, no KOffice, but OpenOffice.org, Amarok and VLC, Kopete, Thunderbird and Firefox, Scribus and KMyMoney. Overall it is a small selection and this results in a very, very, very fast install. From the commit instruction tot the message “Installation complete” it took only 4 minutes on the virtual box. This is amazingly fast. So fast that I wondered whether anything had gone wrong. But no, everything was working fine.
For W2L migrators this KDE desktop should be extremely easy to work with. The default KDE icon for the KDE menu is replaced by a “Start” button. There is only one virtual desktop by default and the minimal selection of packages makes the menu easily browseable and accessible.
The System -> Install function is not meant for you to install new software. Actually, either I missed it completely or it isn’t there, but at the moment there is no option to install new packages through a GUI interface. Within the concept of Ulteo this makes sense. You only get a small set of applications which cover most of the daily needed functionalities, both offline and online. This greatly simplifies management on the server side as the repositories can be kept very small.
The question is whether this alpha release is on it’s way to attract the W2L migrators? If Ulteo were purely another Linux distribution it would not get any high marks. For the Linux user it is too barren and lacking in all those nifty tools. The fact that there is no easy way to install new software prohibits it from being attractive. But… this is no distribution for the Linux user, this is the first step in delivering a new way of computing for the Windows user. Ulteo is going head to head with the likes of Xandros and Linspire and for an alpha release it is doing a good job. Ulteo has provided a solid first building block for it’s vision.
However, I don’t think this distribution will satisfy W2L migrators. Those are the users who are adventurers, who are used to thinkering and playing with their operating system. I don’t think they will be satisfied with this kiosk-style operating system. There have been experiments with simplified, easy-access, basic functionality computing before, targeted for instance at the more elderly among us with little or no prior experience. Without a lot of success.
Maybe Ulteo is more suitable for the W2L migrators who use their computer as a tool for day to day tasks, but even for that group I do believe the concept has to mature. Is that the target audience that really needs access to data and applications anywhere in the world? The business user maybe. But for Joe Smith or Aunt Agatha I doubt that.
Screenshots can be found here