We've now officially entered the season that comes only, er, twice a year: the countdown to the next iteration of Ubuntu. With beta 1 of Ubuntu 12.04 now available, it's time to take a look at what's new -- and there's a lot of it -- in the latest and greatest version of what is (probably) the world's most popular open source operating system.

Ubuntu 12.04, or "Precise Pangolin," as geeks like to call it, is slated to officially debut in stable form April 26, 2012. And while Ubuntu's biannual development schedule means that new versions of the operating system are pushed out with relative frequency, the upcoming version is particularly notable as a "longterm support" (LTS) release, which means Canonical will provide updates for Precise on both desktops and servers through April 2017 -- substantially longer than it does for other releases. The last LTS was Ubuntu 10.04, which appeared two years ago.

Previewing Pangolin

In theory, Ubuntu 12.04's LTS status means it's more conservative from a development standpoint, since developers typically focus on fine-tuning and polishing LTS releases instead of adding new features and software. In fact, however, Precise packs a surprising number of changes, including:
  • The Head-Up Display (HUD) interface, Canonical's endeavor to redefine certain aspects of the decades-old paradigm in which users interact with their computers mainly via window menus. The idea behind the HUD is to allow users to invoke actions by typing in (and, in future Ubuntu releases, by speaking as well) human-recognizable descriptions of what they want to do.
  • Improvements to Unity, the once seemingly ill-fated desktop interface that Ubuntu developers pressed upon users beginning in 2011. Now in version 5.4.0, Unity has done a lot of maturing since last April and will be more configurable and user-friendly in Ubuntu 12.04. (The dock now does a better job of auto-hiding itself, for example.) There are also some cool new features built into Unity, including a video lens for locating multimedia content on both the local computer and via Internet-based services. Maybe we'll see Canonical try to develop this as a revenue stream down the road.
  • An updated software stack, including a return to Rhythmbox as the default music player and more recent releases of the Transmission torrent client (now in version 2.5, and finally comparable to my old favorite, Deluge), the LibreOffice productivity suite (upgraded to version to 3.5) and an interface update for the Ubuntu One client. Additionally, the Linux kernel has been bumped up to version 3.2.
  • Improvements to energy efficiency on desktops, the fruit of an ongoing effort to make Ubuntu less power-hungry.
  • Last but not least, a new login sound, chosen in part by Ubuntu users.
All in all, this list of changes, which I've restricted to only the larger-ticket items, represents quite a bit of new features in Ubuntu 12.04. For an LTS release, Precise is really pushing the envelope.

For my money, though, that's a good thing, since the updates bring some long-needed enhancements to the Ubuntu desktop experience -- particularly when it comes to Unity. Better to incorporate these into the LTS than to wait for the next-next release of Ubuntu in October 2012.