Ubuntu 13.04 ("Raring Ringtail") is nearly here. Ah, April: Cruel though it may be, it's the month where spring finally comes to stay, and I get my tax return. Even better, it marks Canonical's unveiling of Ubuntu 13.04. And with the final beta release now out, it's time to take stock of what the latest and greatest iteration of Ubuntu has in store.

In many ways, the Ubuntu that Canonical will officially release on April 25 (when 13.04 will become "stable") barely resembles the versions of the popular Linux-based desktop, server and cloud operating system that it put out just a few years ago. Ubuntu now has a new interface, Unity, and a much broader hardware footprint as Canonical seeks to "converge" its ecosystem across PCs, servers, tablets, smartphones and even TVs.

What's Not So New...

But for users familiar with more recent Ubuntu releases, not that much has actually changed code-wise since the last version, 12.10, appeared in October 2012. The application stack has received only minor updates, and Unity remains the default interface for desktop installations. There are various design enhancements within Unity, such as a better bluetooth applet menu and a new set of wallpapers, but nothing earth-shattering.

Users who opt to reconfigure their Ubuntu system to use GNOME instead of Unity also won't find any major changes, since 13.04 still uses GNOME version 3.6 by default -- although a PPA is available for those who really want to make the jump to 3.8.

...And What Is

So what's actually new in Ubuntu 13.04? In many ways, it's not the software itself, but the development cycle, the tools available for installing Ubuntu and Canonical's broader vision that are in the midst of the greatest change as this release rolls around.

Ubuntu developers have announced, after a lengthy debate that began earlier this spring, that non-longterm support (LTS) releases of the operating system will receive official support only for nine months, instead of the eighteen Canonical previously provided. That will make the LTS versions of Ubuntu, which come out once every two years, even more important than the other releases (including 13.04) that appear every six months. In many ways, this change will also move Ubuntu to what is essentially a rolling release schedule, at least for users who don't stick solely to the LTS versions.

Canonical has also announced that Wubi, a tool for downloading and installing Ubuntu within Windows, will not support version 13.04 due to various bugs. This isn't a huge deal, but combined with the larger Ubuntu ISO images, which no longer fit on a CD, it changes the way people will obtain Ubuntu and might impact its accessibility and popularity within the channel.

Last but not least, Ubuntu 13.04 -- and the relatively few feature updates that it brings -- highlight a shifting focus on the part of Canonical. For what has now been almost a decade, the company's core product has been a user-friendly open-source operating system designed for traditional hardware. But that's changing as mobile devices have begun taking center stage, and as investment in Ubuntu-based solutions for cloud computing and Big Data have also gained prominence. By all indications, the Ubuntu and Canonical of the coming decade will be very different from those of the preceding one, and the 13.04 release is the clearest proof yet.