Ubuntu Basics

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2517, 2007-04-27, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

There are innumerable reasons why a PC owner might be interested in running the Linux operating system (OS) on their Intel-based computer, as an alternative to Windows. Greater customizability is just one of them.

Linux environments offer far greater customizability than those based on Windows, in two senses: Applications written for Linux are usually open source, and thus can be modified at will. The operating system itself — more correctly, the user interface and other layers on top of the Linux core — can be modified, too, allowing individuals and organizations to create flavors of Linux — known as distributions or "distros" — for specific purposes.

DistroWatch.com ranks the popularity of 360 different distros, and there must be at least half a dozen additional ones that are not listed. Combined, these would allow you to have a different flavor of Linux for every day of the year! (Admittedly, there would be no advantage to this. Even worse, having to install a fresh distro every day might remind the computer user of what it was like having to reboot Windows just as frequently.)

With so many promising distros to choose from, which one is the current favorite? As of this writing, Ubuntu is the hands-down winner.

The Humane OS

When Linux truly emerged in the computer mainstream as a viable alternative to Windows, the most popular distro was Red Hat. Sadly, as it became more commercially oriented, it was increasingly rejected by the Linux world, which values all things that are not only "free as in speech" but also "free as in beer". At the time, the most popular Linux distros were courting commercial firms and discussing licensing schemes, raising concerns throughout the Linux world.

Moving in the opposite direction, Ubuntu wisely offered to mail out to anyone, anywhere in the civilized world, a pair of free installation CDs. Moreover, multiple sets could be requested, thus encouraging recipients to give them to colleagues and friends, and thus spread the word. Ubuntu began rapidly gaining in favor not long after its October 2004 debut, and has held the lead ever since topping the charts.

But there is more to Ubuntu than their offer of free CDs. The leaders and other participants who have contributed so much to Ubuntu, have wisely cultivated a strong sense of community around their distro — perhaps more so than any other. This is reflected in the name itself, as explained on their website: "Ubuntu is an African word meaning 'Humanity to others', or 'I am what I am because of who we all are'."

Even the distro's logo — three people joining hands to form a circle, and looking upwards — embodies the spirit of optimistic collaboration, of joining forces to build something whose value is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This dedication to development through voluntary contribution, is the very essence of the open-source movement.

What They Created

All Linux distributions are built upon the core of Linux, known as the "kernel". It is the chosen user interface, preinstalled applications, and other add-ons that give each individual Linux distro its unique style and capabilities. Ubuntu is no exception.

In fact, choosing a particular user interface can result in a new Linux flavor, such as Kubuntu, which combines Ubuntu with KDE, a free graphical desktop environment. Edubuntu is designed for schools, and Xubuntu is a lightweight version of Ubuntu, requiring less system resources.

Ubuntu itself is offered in two separate editions, depending upon one's needs: Desktop and Server. The latter is intended for deployment on networked servers, and supports the most commonly used services on intranets and the Internet: file serving, Web page serving, e-mail, database access, and DNS (domain name services).

The Desktop Edition is aimed at home and business computer users for deployment on their PCs. It contains many applications, preinstalled, for reading e-mail, surfing the Web, and playing games. For people who would like to intersperse these high priority activities with the occasional bout of productive work, Ubuntu incorporates OpenOffice.org, which offers the primary functionality of other office productivity suites such as Microsoft Office: the creation and management of documents, spreadsheets, and multimedia presentations.

Ubuntu supports many human languages, reflecting the commitment to internationalization of Canonical, its European-headquartered commercial sponsor. Regardless of the language chosen by the brand-new Ubuntu user, they will find a fair amount of help information available, both online and built into Ubuntu, and thus available off-line.

To make it easy for the Ubuntu user to keep their system up to date with the latest bug fixes, security patches, and other improvements, the OS has an update feature, quickly accessible from an icon in the taskbar. These changes to the OS even include full version upgrades.

What You'll Need

In order to get started making Ubuntu your new PC operating system, or simply trying it out to see if it could completely replace Windows for your needs, you will need an optical drive in your PC. You also will need an installation disc, which can be obtained in one of three ways: You can purchase a set of CDs from distributors in the United States, the UK, Canada, and other countries; or DVDs from Amazon.com. If you don't mind a shipping delay, and you want to save some money, you can request that Canonical send you a free CD. If you have access to a high speed Internet connection, then the fastest way to get Ubuntu is to download it and burn it onto a CD-R or CD-RW.

Once you have the base Ubuntu installed, you can add EasyUbuntu, which makes it a snap to download the most popular applications, multimedia codecs, and other valuable enhancements to the operating system that do not come with the base distribution.

Supplementing the native Ubuntu documentation are countless resources on the Web, including Ubuntu Tutorials. Even more appropriate for the new user, is an extensive starter guide hosted by Easylinux.info, and comprising dozens of entries explaining how to do the most common computer tasks.

Unless you have specialized computing needs that can only be met by Windows-only applications, you will likely find Ubuntu giving you more control over your computer, but not giving you the headaches from Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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