What the heck is a pangolin?? With the latest edition of Canonical's popular free Linux distribution, Ubuntu, that's the biggest unanswered question.? It seems fair to assume that version 12.04 of the software has been nicknamed "Precise Pangolin" in tribute to the tropical mammal of Africa and Asia because of the hardened scales that cover its body. (Think of it as something like an armored anteater?which we assume Canonical would have considered as a nickname, were it working from the beginning of the alphabet.) The company may be sending the message that this operating system is safe, secure, and ready for anything?exactly the point of a Long-Term Support (LTS) release. If that is indeed the case, the appellation makes sense. And so does 12.04 itself, which, despite being behind a protective barrier, takes a few tentative?and welcome?steps toward additional innovation.I suspect that those steps are as intended to be as much a broader play toward the enterprise market as a tip of the hat to 12.04's LTS status.? If this is going to be the "default" Ubuntu for a full two years, and Canonical is planning to support it for up to three years beyond that (an increase over previous LTS releases), everything should be usable and right?and, should there be an influx of users from other operating systems, it's even more important.? So 12.04 is less about placating hard-core Linux lovers (who might not have come around to Unity yet) and put everyday folks at ease by giving them more of the options other bigger and more expensive operating systems have led them to expect.
Unity UI Updates
Precise Pangolin doubles down on Unity, the next-generation user interface designed to work equally well on desktops, laptops, netbooks, and tablets that has defined Ubuntu for better or worse for the last year and a half (since the 10.10 Netbook Edition).? Much as Microsoft is digging in its heels with Windows 8, so is Canonical with Unity.? Yet every new Ubuntu release receives some minor tweak that plays with the formula a bit, trying to find the ideal blend of appearance and usability.? I like Unity more than a lot of people do, so I don't need much, but there have been three key advances to it this time around that everyone is likely to find welcome and useful.? They also show that Canonical isn't resting on its laurels when it comes to attracting new users.
First is the Heads-Up Display, or HUD. It implements a typable search interface very much along the lines of what you get in Windows 7 if you hit the Windows key and then start typing.? Here, press the Alt key, type the first few characters of what you're looking for, and Ubuntu will display a semi-transparent list of all the programs, files, and so on that match.? It's not only the natural evolution of the Dash that's been an integral part of Unity since the beginning, but it's also valuable for serious typists or die-hard command liners (many of whom probably use, or are at least familiar with, Linux already) who believe they can work faster without a mouse. My explorations with 12.04 have forced me to side with them; it looks like there are still a few oddities to iron out with the HUD (it didn't always display things I knew it should find, even when I typed what I considered the most sensible keyword), but it's already difficult to imagine how Ubuntu got along without the HUD.? It won't speed up everyone's computing experience, but power users will definitely benefit from it.
Then there are Nautilus Quicklists. By right-clicking on icons on the desktop Launch bar, you receive a short menu of options that list the various additional ways you may interact with that program.? If you've seen or used Jump Lists in Windows 7, you'll understand the basic idea here; they represent a potentially major increase in usability for the applications that take advantage of them.? You won't necessarily see a ton of choices in each one, at least at this point (the included LibreOffice suite, for example, uses practically none), but the ones that do exist help you supercharge Ubuntu by doing a lot more with a lot less clicking.
Last but not least of the big three changes is the new video lens. Just as previous lenses in the Dash made it easy to search for things like files and music, so does this one simplify the process of tracking down videos?and it doesn't just search your PC, it can also draw results from major websites like YouTube.? The video lens, like the HUD and Quicklists, represents an amplified recognition of the way people use their computers today, and many users?particularly beginners (or Microsoft crossovers?)?will undoubtedly appreciate having so many options at their disposal.
Those are the biggest technical changes in 12.04, and they're more than enough?but Canonical has made a few other adjustments as well.? Perhaps the most astonishing is the increase in performance:? In our testing 12.04 was noticeably faster than 11.10 ("Oneiric Ocelot") in terms of navigation, opening programs, and booting. In my tests, the latest version of Ubuntu started up several seconds more quickly?a very impressive improvement.?
The Software Center, for downloading and buying programs to use in Ubuntu, now allows PayPal transactions, personalized recommendations, and sharing software with friends (through use of Web Directory), and it automatically installs language support packages. The System Settings window has received a couple of updates, and it's easier to find configuration options in there now?including Appearance (replacing User Interface) for swapping out the OS's default theme.? Banshee, the default music player in 11.10, has been replaced with Rhythmbox, though you can of course change it (as you can with everything in Ubuntu).
With Ubuntu 12.04, Canonical has shown itself to be unusually cagey. As Microsoft pushes itself (and its users) toward Windows 8 and away from the traditional style of desktop interaction it's helped foster over the last 25 years, Canonical is continually in the process of making its software more like what Microsoft used to make?all while still acknowledging (with its bet-the-farm reliance on Unity) that the computer world is evolving.? In fact, 12.04 seems to be as much about Windows 8 (and its potential refugees) as it is about Ubuntu, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the next incarnation of the OS (12.10, which will arrive in October) pushes this aspect even more forcefully.? I'm not positive that Ubuntu is yet the one-to-one Windows replacement it's obviously aspiring to be, but 12.04 comes tantalizingly close to the mark.? Whether the gamble will pay off remains to be seen, but it's obvious that this pangolin isn't just precise?it's also incredibly prudent.
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??? Ubuntu 12.04 ("Precise Pangolin")
??? Ubuntu 11.10 ("Oneiric Ocelot")
??? Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials
??? Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal)
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