It's already mid-February, which -- besides cold weather and the bourgeois contrivances of Valentine's Day -- means Ubuntu developers are more than halfway to the release of the next version of the operating system, 12.04. And with that in mind, it seems timely to take a look at how Unity is shaping up. Read on for some highlights on what to expect from the desktop environment in April and beyond.

If Ubuntu is the world's most popular Linux distribution -- or at least was -- Unity is undoubtedly the world's most controversial open source user interface. Loved by some but passionately loathed by many users in its earlier iterations, the desktop environment is nonetheless here to stay, since Canonical shows no signs of shipping Ubuntu with anything else in the near future.

Fortunately, despite all that was wrong with Unity when it was first introduced, Ubuntu developers have been hard at work improving stability and usability. If everything goes as planned, the version of Unity that ships with Ubuntu 12.04 in April 2012 will be full of enhancements that will make the problems of its predecessors only bitter memories.

Unity Improvements

More specifically, here are some of the new features to look for in the latest and greatest iteration of Unity, as well as some other enhancements currently in development, based on developers' blogs and mailing list messages:

  • Better multi-monitor support: Arguably (and I did argue about this a couple months ago), it would have been nice if Unity would just have worked with multiple monitors from the get-go as well as other desktop environments did. But since it didn't, it's great that this should be less of an issue in Ubuntu 12.04.
  • Enhanced VMware Unity integration: It's not yet clear that this feature will be complete in time for the 12.04 release, but Unity developers have been talking about making VMware's "Unity" mode -- a feature that integrates the windows of a guest operating system into those of the host, like VirtualBox's seamless mode -- work better under the Unity desktop environment.
  • Support for virtual drives in the Unity launcher: With developers working on this bug, there's hope that the upcoming version of Unity will do a better job of handling launchers for virtual drives. This may not be a huge deal, but it would certainly be nice to get this stuff working -- especially since it was so much of a non-issue in GNOME 2, for instance.
  • Playing nicely with Compiz: Developers are working to smooth over some of the ugliness involving Unity and the Compiz compositing manager. This is mostly back-end stuff, but it should benefit users by making for a more bug-free experience.
  • New screen edge detection: In an effort to make the Unity dock less intrusive, it will now require more than a quick mouse hover to unhide itself. Personally, I can't say that this issue has bothered me too much, and I think I'd rather just see more options for customizing how the dock behaves.  But I'm encouraged all the same by the attention afforded to this usability concern.
  • Last but not least, there's HUD, Canonical's latest user interface adventure, which most likely soon will be integrated into Unity. I'm curious to see how users react to this change, given that there was so much outrage when Canonical simply moved the window buttons from the right to the left a few releases ago. But maybe people will end up learning to like it.

This list certainly isn't exhaustive, and the Ubuntu 12.04 release remains more than two months away. Plenty could change between now and then -- and undoubtedly will, as Ubuntu developers respond to the user feedback on Unity they've been soliciting. But overall, by most appearances upcoming versions of Unity promise to be more user-friendly and robust than their predecessors. And that's a great thing, because I don't want to keep using MATE and Cinnamon forever.