It will probably not have escaped your notice that Karmic Koala, version 9.10 of Ubuntu, was released yesterday.
Nothing unusual in that, since a new version appears like clockwork every six months, except that it happened to coincide with the launch of a certain other operating system. This provides a rare opportunity to compare and contrast their different approaches to software development and release.
As I mentioned, new alliterating animals appear on a regular cycle – Lucid Lynx will be padding along in April next year. In a way, that's just another manifestation of open source's “release early, release often” mantra – the idea being that faster iterations keep the code fresher, engage the community more and generally allows features to be added sooner.
Contrast this with the approach the Microsoft follows. There, a new operating system appears once every few years – followed by an apparently interminable sequence of service packs and patches.
The reason this is done is largely because of the need to create a “new” product, since Microsoft's model essentially consists of re-selling the same software to users again and again, but with each version looking sufficiently different that it can claim, with varying degrees of plausibility, that it's worth the extra money.
Of course, open source doesn't need to worry about seducing users again and again with lots of new bling, so it can release its free upgrades more often.
That means new features can be added faster, without needing to wait until the next major iteration. It also means that users do not have to cope with big differences all at once – always an issue when a new version of Windows (or Microsoft Office) comes out.
One downside of this approach is that each new version of Ubuntu, say, is less of a media “event” than the new versions of Windows.
This probably contributes to free software's continuing low profile: it is much harder for news outlets to get worked up about it, since its launches and improvements just keep on happening, with almost boring regularity. Similarly, thanks to Ubuntu's Update Manager, bugs are fixed and new features are added to programs almost without the user being aware of the fact.
It's just a continuous, background process of improvement – rather like open source itself, which slowly but surely gets better and better.
So while Ubuntu and its free software cousins may lack the pizazz of the punctuated equilibrium of Windows, with its high-profile irruptions into mainstream media, this is more than made up for by the solid inevitability of their continuing, incremental evolution.