LINUX VENDOR Canonical has pulled out all the stops with Ubuntu 12.04 to get enterprises to give its Linux operating system a go, and on the whole it succeeds, even if some features might put off traditional users.
Canonical's Ubuntu 12.04 is known as Precise Pangolin and it is the firm's fourth long term support (LTS) release with extended support for both desktop and server distributions for five years. As part of Canonical's push into the enterprise, Ubuntu 12.04 rolls up the big changes seen in the four Ubuntu releases since Ubuntu 10.04 rather than introducing new ones, and the result is an operating system that feels more complete than other recent Ubuntu Linux releases.
Due to the considerable work Canonical has put into Ubuntu's pre-install and installation experience, it is arguably the best bet for those who want to try a Linux operating system. Canonical offers a try-before-you-download service for Ubuntu 12.04 along with the usual Live CDs and a Windows-based installer. Not that its standard installer is tricky, and in fact Microsoft could do well to take notes for its upcoming Windows 8 operating system.
For existing Ubuntu users, upgrading from Ubuntu 10.04 is a doddle, with the Software Update application taking all of the strain. Upgrading from newer versions of Ubuntu is said to be just as easy, though we were not able to test this.
Canonical talked at great lengths about AWSOME and metal-as-a-service prior to the launch of Ubuntu 12.04, and while those are important for firms looking to deploy Ubuntu in the server room, the most visible change in Ubuntu 12.04 from Ubuntu 10.04 is the Unity desktop interface. The firm has put considerable effort into Unity, which is a skin on top of the much derided Gnome 3 window manager, and Unity has matured in the year since it made its mainstream debut in Ubuntu 11.04.
For Canonical, Unity represents something it can use to differentiate itself from other Linux distributions as well as a look towards touch-based input devices. It should be noted that Unity can be installed on other Linux distributions, although Canonical is the first Linux vendor to make it the default.
It's easy to see why there has been such vocal opposition to Canonical's efforts with Unity. Going from Gnome 2 or Xfce to Unity is a big jump and it certainly takes time to get used to. While the large icons docked to the side of the screen might initially look a bit Mickey Mouse, the attention to detail is impressive even in mundane features such as workspace management, which has more than a hint of Mac OS X Expose about it.
Along with Unity, Canonical has developed a heads-up display (HUD). According to the firm, the idea is to type commands instead of rummaging through menus, and while that sounds like a good idea in practice we found it at times to be cumbersome, slow and ultimately ending up going through the application's menus in order to find the desired function. Canonical's HUD will improve with time but right now it is still more of a gimmick than a time-saving feature.
Long-standing Linux users have been the most vocal about Canonical's Unity interface, and although Canonical has removed Gnome as a fall back from Unity, there is nothing stopping Ubuntu users from installing other window managers, and Canonical ships Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Lubuntu with the KDE, Xfce and LXDE window managers as defaults, respectively. Canonical's efforts to create a unique user interface perhaps take attention away from the fact that Ubuntu 12.04 is a refreshingly complete operating system. A standard installation of Ubuntu 12.04 includes Libreoffice, an office suite that supports Microsoft's proprietary file formats while promoting the ISO standard Open Document Format (ODF).
Canonical has stayed with the tried and tested Firefox web browser which has Adobe Flash support out of the box, while Thunderbird is the built in messaging client, although last year the firm didn't say whether it would stick with Firefox and Thunderbird after this release. Canonical includes Rhythmbox for music playback and as expected integrates it with Ubuntu One to buy music, with the overall experience being good compared to Apple's benchmark Itunes.