With its upcoming "Feisty Fawn" version of Ubuntu Linux due April 19, Canonical hopes to shed light on what happens when things go wrong.
Feisty Fawn, also known as version 7.04, comes with software that can send debugging information to help programmers track down the problems that cause applications to crash, Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth said in an interview.
"There are potentially millions of users of an application on Ubuntu, but they don't have a relationship with us or upstream developers," Shuttleworth said. "If we can connect those two groups more effectively, it's good for both of them."
Automated, Internet-enabled debugging provides a useful way for programmers to hear about problems encountered by users who might not otherwise take the time to report them. Microsoft Windows has software for doing so, and the software giant is expanding it.
Automated crash reports also can help by supplying more technical detail than most people can provide. For example, "stack traces" show exactly what was on the computer's mind when the crash occurred.
"We've built infrastructure which allows us to detect whenever an application crashes...gather detailed information like a stack trace and ask the user if he's willing to give it back to us," Shuttleworth said.
Ubuntu has risen to popularity alongside better-established versions of Linux such as Red Hat, Suse Linux, Mandriva and Debian. Canonical, which began its Ubuntu push with an emphasis on desktop computers, is the latest in a long line of contenders that have attracted only a small fraction of users away from dominant Microsoft. But Canonical hopes to profit from Ubuntu's use on servers, a proven area of interest for the open-source operating system.
Some versions of Ubuntu come with long-term, five-year support--the first and most recent being 6.04, called Dapper Drake. Feisty Fawn won't be such a version, Shuttleworth said, and nor in all likelihood will its sequel. But another long-term support version is likely to emerge in April 2008, after two of Ubuntu's six-month release cycles go by, he said.
"I'd be betting on Feisty +2. That's about the right time frame," Shuttleworth said.
Ubuntu programmers had hoped to endow Feisty Fawn with a fancy 3D-graphics interface, but chose to make it optional after concluding the software wasn't mature enough.
"I don't always get what I want. That's good and healthy," Shuttleworth said.
But he's still excited by the possibilities of a glam interface, believing it could potentially spawn new programming projects in the way Firefox's plug-in interface has done.
"This desktop bling stuff, while easy to trivialize, is an area where people can come up with fundamentally exciting new ideas," Shuttleworth said. "If we can turn that on for free software users, we can unleash that creative flood."