Apple is fading from relevance in the computing space as it turns its attention toward phones, Web tablets and other consumer gadgets. Its server products are a joke, and its desktop and laptop machines are rapidly losing their allure: Selling style over substance works only as long as you remain stylish, but on that front Apple has become tired, boring and predictable.
But if you're an old-style Apple fan (by which I mean a fan of Apple Computer, not the new Apples R Us toys and games company) then there's no need to fret. Apple may not "get" it anymore, but it seems Canonical does.
Canonical is the open source software company behind Ubuntu, a Linux distro with a powerful server OS. It's a bit like OS X Server, but more than a handful of people actually use Ubuntu Server Edition, and Canonical still actively develops and updates it with a new release every six months.
Ubuntu also has editions for desktops, laptops and netbooks, which it updates regularly as clockwork every half year. In the past 12 months this product has evolved into something that's powerful, easy to use, and -- something most Apple fans are loath to admit -- far more stylish than Snow Leopard. But perhaps that's not surprising, really, when you consider that Apple is far too busy with its iPhoneOS to bother much about updating OS X.
This is a big week for Canonical. On Thursday, it will release Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" server operating system, including a compact version tailored for Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud (UEC) and Amazon's EC2 cloud-computing service. It's an LTS or Long Term Support release, which means Canonical guarantees it will be support it and release patches and updates for five years.
Doubtless, the release will get plenty of reviews later in the week, so suffice it to say it comes with plenty of bells and whistles, including UEC technology and KVM-based virtualization with live migration. Traditionally, Ubuntu Server Edition has been looked viewed as the "other" server distro for dull stuff, like file and print servers, while organizations run their main workloads on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server or Windows Server 2008. However, Canonical looks increasingly determined to evolve its open source server into a full-blown enterprise Linux in its own right.
The desktop editions of Ubuntu will also be released on Thursday, sporting a new look (but not Gnome 3 -- that will probably arrive with the Maverick Meerkat release six months down the line), new graphics card drivers and a number of consumer-oriented innovations. These include the MeMenu panel for easy access to messaging and social networking services, the new Gwibber microblogging client, and an online music store.
Truth be told, there isn't a vast amount that's new and marvelous in Lucid Lynx. But that's not the point. What's significant about Ubuntu is not where it's at right now, but the fact that it's on the move, being driven by Canonical onward and upward. It's not slowly ossifying and sinking, like Apple's OS X. "Once we have released the LTS we have plenty of room to shake things up a little. Let's hear the best ideas, gather the best talent, and be a little radical in how we approach the next two year major cycle," says Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's chief, on his blog .
Innovative, forward-looking, stylish and fun: Basically, Ubuntu is rapidly becoming everything that OS X might have been if Apple hadn't decided to turn its back on it and become fixated with iPhoneOS. Everything, that is, except overpriced and closed.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.