Free, easy to install and backed by a lot of money

"Oh no, another Linux flavour!"
I hear you brothers and sisters, I hear you. I have stopped taking notice of daily announcements from groups of overweight and pale script kiddies who think it would be cool to have a Linux distro with the name of their pet-canary, with themselves as benign demigod reigning over a group of adoring users. Just check out Distrowatch and check out the plethora of crummy distros floating around: there's more Linux out there than you can shake a stick at. Setting up a distro is of course much more than collecting a set of applications, writing an installation script and designing your own logo: you need appropriate support, good community backup and an actual reason to launch another flavour than just to satisfy your l33t hackz0r ego.

Ubuntu is fortunately different: the chap that launched Ubuntu is South African billionaire and Space Shuttle veteran Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Thawte, philanthropist and general all-around good guy. Based on the principle of Ubuntu, an African concept meaning "humanity to others" (read the excellent node by Strawberryfrog on Ubuntu to gain knowledge and brownie points). The principles of Ubuntu Linux are:

  • Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licencing fees.
  • Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.
  • Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability.

Distributed by Canonical Ltd, you can get a CD of the latest Ubuntu release for free, sent to your home anywhere in the world. Based on the unstable version of Debian, the lovely named "Sid", Ubuntu gives you plenty of applications on one CD including a nice and clean Gnome desktop. Shuttleworth made sure to hire some of the best codeheads in the business to work on the distribution, so the installer is absolutely painfree and takes literally only minutes. After the initial copying of data to the HD, the distro updates itself and off you go. The desktop is quite tastefully set up in earthy pastel colours and the control panels are extremely easy to use, even for a Linux eejit like me. Main apps included are the Open Office suite, Firefox, the impressive mail, calendar and adress book app Evolution and plenty of other, easy to use tools.

As the software distributed under Ubuntu is free and open, proprietary software like Flash or Realplayer is not included, but I found adding these easy via the terminal window. After trying only KDE based distros like Suse, Mepis and Knoppix, I was impressed by Gnome's simplicity and well designed GUI. Ubuntu was the first distro I tried that didn't need any tweaking after installation, and I was able to give my girlfriend the machine 10 minutes after the final installion step, which was entering the SMTP and POP adresses. Since then she (a Windows-only user of 10 years) has embraced the OS wholeheartedly and is delighted with performance, ease of use and stability. The current Ubuntu release supports Intel x86 (IBM-compatible PC), AMD 64 (Hammer) and PowerPC (Apple iBook and Powerbook, G4 and G5) architectures.

Mark Shuttleworth and his merry band of geeks have certainly done a great job: a well layed out, stable and easy to install OS that listens to it's users via the Ubuntu Wiki and an extremely active mailinglist, it has been running in my household on two machines now and so far hasn't shown the merest glitch.

In my first opinion, this is the first Linux that can make it onto the Desktop.

And stay there.


http://www.ubuntulinux.org

Ubuntu is a Debian based commercial Linux distribution, which seems to be targeted primarily at the desktop. Structured as a community based project, Ubuntu is sponsored by the South African company Canonical Ltd. The project is based around the African concept of Ubuntu, and the official Ubuntu web page bares the following statement on the nature of the project:

"The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Manifesto: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit."

Yet Another Commercial Distribution?

Ubuntu is somewhat unusual among commercial distributions because their business model is not in any way based around selling software packages, nor, they pledge, will it ever be. While other commercial distributions like Suse, Libranet, Mandrake, and Red Hat generally offer a free version or free spin-off1, they often attempt to make much of their money off the distribution of extra proprietary software or closed software services. Canonical's business will be to offer, "technical support and professional services related to Ubuntu." However, they also encourage third parties to offer support services for Ubuntu and keep listings of these companies, available to Ubuntu users.

Releases and the Relationship of Ubuntu and Debian

Ubuntu seems to be setup with the idea that Debian GNU/Linux is a pretty good distribution but its release process leaves a lot of users wanting more. First, let me say a bit about Debian releases. Debian has 3 versions available at any one time: Stable, Testing, and Unstable. Most of the time the software in Debian Stable is too far out of date for the tastes of many users, and Unstable is up to date but...well...unstable.2 Testing is the middle ground where packages that have been vetted in Unstable go to wait until the next Stable release. Here you are less likely to find completely broken packages, but you are still constantly updating much of the OS and there is the additional problem that Testing purportedly does not have any quick mechanism set up for security updates, so in some sense Testing is the worst of both worlds. Many users like Debian but want a version that is up to date yet still stable and doesn't constantly have large updates, which is where Ubuntu comes in.

Ubuntu is scheduled to have a release every six months based off a snapshot of Debian unstable. They get all the Debian unstable packages at that time, then they select a subset of them that will make up the main Ubuntu distribution. Those packages in the main distribution are checked and modified to ensure they are stable and working and any desired tweaks are made. The Ubuntu release then consists of this selection of "main" programs, which have been extensively tested, plus a "Universe" repository containing the rest of the packages from the Debian unstable snapshot. While the packages from Universe aren't guaranteed to work with Ubuntu, they almost always do work, since most of the packages in Unstable at any given time work fine. The result is that the user gets a fairly up to date system (though not bleeding edge) that is also stable and will have only minor updates until the next release. At the same time, using the universe repository one has access to the vast array of software of the Debian distribution. For most users this is the best of both worlds. While you generally have to stick to the Ubuntu repositories (i.e., main, universe, etc. not the main Debian repositories), the entire system is based on Debian packages so you can use all the normal apt tools, like apt-get and synaptic. It's not clear to me how the Debian community will relate to Ubuntu in the long term, but as the Ubuntu community has pledged to send any bug fixes they make upstream and given their commitment to free software, it seems like the seeds have been planted for a good and productive relationship.

Ubuntu's somewhat unconventional approach to releases leads to unconventional release numbers. Releases will be identified by the month and year in which they were released, so the first release is Ubuntu 4.10 which was released in October 2004. It seems they have chosen unconventional release names as well. The first release is codenamed Warty Warthog, which will be followed by Hoary Hedgehog (5.4) and Grumpy Groundhog (5.10). Upgrades are supported from release to release, meaning that users should be able to upgrade to a new release without having to reinstall entirely. Canonical is also considering periodically releasing an enterprise release. These would be based off of one of the ordinary releases but with "additional stabilisation, polish and translation work" and would be released every 12-24 months. Ordinary releases will get security updates for 18 months, while enterprise releases would have security updates for a longer period.

It Just Works

After installing Ubuntu and using it for a few months, my impression is that the goal of Ubuntu is to be a desktop that "just works". To that end, they have avoided the kitchen sink approach of most Linux distributions and focused on supporting a few applications well rather than supporting every application under the sun. This is reflected in the default installation, where they have chosen exactly one tool for each purpose and made sure that they work well together. Another reflection of this attitude is that the Gnome desktop environment is included in Ubuntu main whereas KDE is not, because they wanted to focus on one desktop and make it work flawlessly rather that trying to support two.3 While this more narrow focus is a bit different from most distributions and may feel a bit restrictive at first, most users seem to find that the trade off of having a system that installs simply and works smoothly without a lot of setup and tweaking is well worth it. My experience was that it was easier to install than Mandrake, Debian Testing, or even Libranet, and that almost everything was configured correctly; in fact, the only thing that needed to be fixed was the handling of closed media formats.

The one usability snag for most users of Ubuntu seems to be proprietary formats. Ubuntu is not setup even to be able to decode mp3s out of the box. For most Linux users, difficulties with proprietary formats is all too familiar. Many media formats require codecs with licenses that prohibit or require royalties for redistribution, preventing them from being included in a free Linux distribution. There are always ways to get around these problems, for example by downloading codecs from a foreign server, a practice that is technically illegal but generally seems to be tolerated. Ubuntu has gone further than just omitting tools that they cannot legally distribute for free, they have made a commitment to open and free formats, unencumbered by patents. While this may sound noble, it means that, for example, they don't distribute an mp3 decoder, even though it may be distributed for free, because it is patented. This is a stance even more radical than that of the Debian project, notorious sticklers for their free software policy, and probably unrealistic as all but the most hardcore open source advocates will simply go and add these functions themselves. Still, the other media resources that exist for Debian exist in the universe repository or can be found in some of the unofficial Debian repositories on the Internet. This is one area of usability where a distribution like Libranet surpasses Ubuntu, as it provides not only things like mp3 decoding but also tools to make it easy to download and install propriety media tools like Macromedia Flash and RealPlayer that are needed for content all over the world wide web. The Ubuntu community has tried to supply instructions for installing all the common tools for various media formats in order to ease this problem for fellow users.

Support

Canonical Ltd., the sponsor of Ubuntu, offers support contracts, for both home users and businesses, and they maintain a listing of other support providers. There is also a large and active support community that provides free support to Ubuntu users. There are user contributed FAQs, How-to, and more in the support section of the official Ubuntu site as well as a wiki for users to contribute more helpful support information. These can be found at

http://www.Ubuntu.com/

Like almost any open source software project there is a mailing list. There are also the Ubuntu Linux Forums located at

http://www.ubuntuforums.org

where users can find more tutorials or post a question. Finally, there is the fairly active #Ubuntu channel on the Freenode IRC network, where users can ask their questions in real-time. While there doesn't seem to be quite the number of highly knowledgeable users to be found, say, in the Debian community, there is plenty of help to be found in the Ubuntu community, and the community generally seems to be open to users of all levels of expertise, in contrast to the sometimes elitist attitude of Linux communities.

Ubuntu Releases and Supported Platforms

The only release of Ubuntu right now is Warty Warthog (4.10), which is available for the i386, PPC, and AMD64 (a.k.a. x64) processors. There is also a "live CD" based off of Warty called WartyLive, which only supports i386 currently. Work is currently underway on the next release Hoary Hedgehog, and interested users can also download and use Hoary while it is still under development, not unlike running Debian unstable or Mandrake cooker.

My Experience

As I alluded to earlier, I found that Ubuntu was a breeze to install. It was by far the easiest install I've experienced in Linux or Windows, unless you include booting up from a Knoppix CD. What's more, it configured itself excellently. Laptops are renown for being difficult to configure with their often obscure hardware, but everything seemed to work correctly on my laptop without any further configuration, including the touchpad I'd never gotten fully configured with Debian testing. Since I installed Warty (4.10) about 3 months ago, I've generally found it to be a pleasure to use and very much trouble free. Up until now I'd mostly been a KDE user, with small explorations into IceWM. I've found the Gnome based Ubuntu desktop quite usable, but I do miss the wider selection and greater maturity of KDE applications, and I'm considering installing KDE from the universe repository. From what I recall, the installation was fairly easy, except that it lacked a graphical partitioning tool, so it should not be attempted if you need to partition and don't know much about doing that. The desktop seems like it would be quite suitable for everyday use, even by a complete newbie, but I'm not sure that system administration tasks are quite user friendly enough for that yet, since, for example, you still have to understand at least how to use synaptic in order to software updates. For a Linux novice not adept with computers I might still recommend something like Mandrake instead.

Ubuntu is still the new kid in town, but so far it's attracted a lot of users and attention from the Linux world. Among other accolades, Ars Technica named Ubuntu best community of the year, distribution of the year, and best newcomer to the community for 2004. What remains to be seen is whether Ubuntu will stick to their release schedule, whether the community can maintain the high level of enthusiasm and involvement in the long term, and whether some new distribution will come along in the next year and steal their thunder. Still, I have high hopes for Ubuntu and plan to keep running it for the foreseeable future.


  1. The generally have to, since their distribution is based upon software with the GPL they are required by the license to at least make the code available.
  2. The truth is that unstable doesn't break too often, but occasionally there is a broken package and it can cause huge problems for the non-expert. Also, if you run unstable you are constantly updating major parts of your OS which takes time an bandwidth and can occasionally break things.
  3. KDE is still available in the universe repository, it just isn't specifically tested and supported as part of Ubuntu. I've read that it works fine.

Source: The official Ubuntu website http://www.ubuntu.com

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