Ubuntu logoAs Linux fans have undoubtedly noticed by now, the official debut of Ubuntu 12.04 -- the latest version of the open source operating system and the first "longterm support" (LTS) release in two years -- is only hours away. In preparation, here's a recap of the most important new features in the release, and what they could mean for Ubuntu and the open source channel in the long term.

Admittedly, I've always thought Ubuntu release dates were a bit arbitrary. In contrast to some other Linux distributions that don't stick to predetermined release dates, the newest version of Ubuntu officially becomes stable on a day and time selected months beforehand. In practice the operating system is a constant work in progress, with bugs continually being identified and addressed both before and after release day. But Ubuntu 12.04 -- code-named "Precise Pangolin" -- needs to debut officially sometime, and April 26, 2012, is the magic date.

What's New

The full list of new features to look forward to in Ubuntu 12.04 is available from the Ubuntu wiki, but characteristics of greatest note include:
  • Version 5.10 of the Unity desktop environment. While the interface has been controversial, it should be clear at this point that protests aside, Canonical intends to make it a permanent part of Ubuntu.  Fortunately, recent iterations of Unity are considerably more mature and user-friendly than their predecessors, traits that will hopefully placate many Ubuntu users who were unhappy with the interface in the beginning.
  • HUD, Canonical's attempt to redefine the way users interact with applications. This feature debuts in an early form in Ubuntu 12.04 despite the warning that "HUD is in a very early stage of development, and not ready for production use." Since the inclusion of the HUD does not come at the expense of any other functionality, however, it's probably safe enough to include it and see how users respond.
  • Improvements to power-management in the pm-utils package. This is certainly a welcome enhancement for my money, since every extra minute of life I can squeeze out of my tired Dell netbook's battery counts.
  • The debut of Kubuntu Active, one of the only serious attempts in the Linux world to develop an interface targeted specifically at tablets (as opposed to desktop environments including Unity and GNOME Shell, which want to work for a range of devices), as a "technology preview."
There are also a variety of other changes worth noting beyond the desktop, although most of the big-ticket items will affect only desktop users.

Ubuntu Grows More Unique

Most of the features new to Ubuntu 12.04 are relatively minor, and none of the changes radically revolutionizes anything -- unsurprising, since an LTS release -- which Canonical needs to support for five years -- is not one that lends itself to experimentation.

Nonetheless, if there's one thing that the enhancements to the next version of Ubuntu highlight, it's the operating system is continuing to diverge from the rest of the pack in many respects. Much of the software at its core is now developed by Canonical itself, with little reliance on upstream projects. Regardless of whether one likes it, Ubuntu is no longer simply Debian with a few user-friendly tweaks; with Unity, HUD and other independently developed features, it's increasingly becoming a beast of its own.

For now, though, it's at least still Linux -- but at this point, I wouldn't be too surprised to read on Mark Shuttleworth's blog that Canonical has decided to fork the Linux kernel itself and turn Ubuntu into something totally unique.