Netbooks pre-loaded with Ubuntu

Monday, June 9th, 2008

The Canonical OEM team has been approached by a number of OEM’s who want to sell netbooks (small, low-cost laptops with an emphasis on the web) based on Ubuntu. Almost universally, they’ve asked for standard Ubuntu packages and updates, with an app launcher that’s more suited to new users and has the feeling of a “device” more than a PC.

There are some very cool launchers out there – AWN is a current favourite of mine – but people seem to prefer the more 2-dimensional tabbed approach, so the OEM team implemented a lightweight but still very classy launcher for this use case. The work received a detailed review in Ars Technica and has been covered in Free Software Magazine and elsewhere.

The aim was to do something very simple that could be tested easily, work with touch devices and made shippable very quickly. It also needed to be efficient on lower-power devices, and work well with Intel hardware, which seems to be the preferred platform for this generation of devices and allows us to slip a few nice effects in that would be hard without the right hardware support. Here’s a screenshot of a recent version:

The Ubuntu Netbook Remix launcher is laid out for new users

The new launcher is free software – so far, everything Canonical has funded, written and published for general public use on Ubuntu has been under the GPL. Currently we use GPLv3. You can grab the relevant packages from a public PPA, just add the following entry to your /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb hardy main

The PPA contains a number of packages for the launcher, some GNOME panel applets, window manager tweaks and themes. These bits and pieces are small but improve the experience of Ubuntu run with the netbook launcher on screens with lower vertical resolution. There’s also some code in there specific to the Intel netbook hardware platforms, don’t install ume-config-netbook unless you are on the right hardware! This is all code produced by Canonical and published on Launchpad under free software licenses:

I’m particularly happy with the way it gives you more screen space for web browsing, which is probably the major use case on these form factors:

The screen layout is optimised for screens with fewer vertical pixels

There are still plenty of interesting corner cases, Ars calls out issues with the GiMP’s palettes, for example, so please do take the opportunity to test it with the apps you think you’d run on a small laptop (or as El Reg would say, laptot).  And feel free to push up and submit for inclusion a branch or two if you’re up to a bit of Clutter hackery!

For the rest, the netbook remix uses standard ubuntu packages from the standard ubuntu archive, with standard security updates. So it meets all of our usual commitments around security and compatibility. You can recreate the netbook remix just by installing 8.04, adding the PPA to your list of repositories, fetching the packages and configuring them appropriately for your system.

The netbook remix is not part of the “official Ubuntu editions”, it’s not like Kubuntu or Ubuntu or Ubuntu Server. It’s a separate remix published by the Canonical OEM team. It will probably get revved in October when Ubuntu 8.10 is released, but that’s up to the Canonical OEM team and their customers, and not the responsibility of the Ubuntu project team.

In working with manufacturers, the OEM team creates custom install images which are specific to hardware from those OEM’s. They have the free software packages I’ve described, and they may also include third-party software selected by OEM’s which Canonical cannot redistribute, so we can’t publish the custom installers that are produced under contract. Those images typically are hand-customised for a faster boot time, which means they will only work on the particular device for which they were intended, unlike standard Ubuntu which should auto-detect and configure itself for whatever hardware it is being booted on.

We specifically wanted to do this project as an Ubuntu Remix – based on standard Ubuntu 8.04 packages, with modified package selection and some additional code, but leaving the core platform packages unmodified. In terms of the trademark guidelines for an Ubuntu Remix companies cannot call their platform Ubuntu if they have modified packages (especially the kernel and desktop packages) but they can if they are just re-arranging standard Ubuntu packages. Canonical is in a privileged position as the Ubuntu trademark owner – we can certify a custom kernel if we believe it has been done in an appropriate way that won’t conflict with standard Ubuntu maintenance processes, and if we can keep the custom kernel up to date to the same standard as the normal Ubuntu kernel. So these are certified Ubuntu devices from Canonical, even though they are more customized than other people can within the Remix guidelines.

We’re also working with two companies that want more radical user interface innovation. Canonical is participating directly in the design and implementation of one of those UI’s, and we’re integrating someone else’s UI on an Ubuntu base for the second project. I haven’t seen either of those UI’s, for confidentiality reasons, but I’m told that the teams working on them think they have great ideas that will elevate, in different ways, the state of the art. All in all it will be exciting to see how the netbook era stimulates innovation in the Linux user experience, because there are a lot of companies wanting to build differentiated UI’s on a standard Linux base. And directly or indirectly Canonical will help to bring that innovation to KDE and GNOME and hence to the wider Linux ecosystem.