I’ve used Linux and open source software for quite some time now, and if there is one thing I can count on, it’s this: successful open source software must have a strange name. Whether it’s Pidgin (instant messaging client), Gnumeric (spreadsheet program), Amarok (audio player), or Firefox (web browser), it’s almost a rule that a popular program needs a name that bears little relation to it. If this rule holds true, then maybe it explains some of the success of one of the newest major Linux distributions: Ubuntu.
“Ubuntu” is an African word with two meanings: “humanity to others” and “I am what I am because of who we all are.” These are ideas that, at least on the surface, don’t really seem to apply to a piece of software, especially a Linux distribution. The Ubuntu distribution, however, has a goal to bring these ideas to the software world. And when using Ubuntu, you certainly get the feeling of a distribution designed to appeal to everyone. The main way they seem to achieve this is through very simple options and through automating a lot of the traditionally difficult parts of a Linux distribution.
The first and best place to try the Ubuntu approach is through the install CD. There are a few different ways to get an Ubuntu install CD, but the most popular two methods are to download a CD image from an Ubuntu mirror listed on https://ubuntu.com, or to register on https://ubuntu.com and have a CD pack sent to your house free of charge. One of the nice features of the Ubuntu install CD is that it automatically doubles as a live CD. When you boot the CD, you go into a complete Ubuntu desktop environment that automatically configures your hardware and runs directly from the disc. Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop environment, and from the CD you can browse the Web, edit photos, write a document, and otherwise try out Ubuntu without any commitment. When you are finished, you can reboot and eject the CD ,and be back to your normal desktop environment. The live CD functionality is a feature that the other major desktop-focused distributions would be wise to emulate.
Installation & Setup (5 out of 5)
The installation CD doubles as a live CD, so it’s easy to try out Ubuntu on your computer without a commitment. If you like what you see, you can double-click the Install icon on the desktop to start the installation wizard. You are only required to answer a few basic questions (mostly about language and location preferences) and even the most technical part of the installer–disk partitioning–is relatively simple. Ubuntu will detect if you already have an operating system installed and makes it easy to resize an existing Windows partition to make room. For laptops, Ubuntu has one of the best track records for automatically detecting and configuring hardware and enabling features such as suspend and resume from RAM.
One nitpick: if you don’t want to experiment with the desktop, but instead want to just install the distribution, you still need to boot to the full live CD desktop first, which can take some time on some systems.
User Interface (4 out of 5)
Ubuntu defaults to the GNOME desktop environment, which aims to simplify the Linux desktop experience by choosing default settings that please the most people. The standard desktop is clean, without a lot of icons littering it, and a few clicks on the menu bar along the top of the screen reveal available applications and settings.
The System -> Preferences menu would benefit from some categories–the number of individual applications that tweak one setting make it somewhat overwhelming and difficult to find the setting you want.
Security & Privacy (5 out of 5)
By default, no externally accessible services are on in Ubuntu, not even ssh. Ubuntu also configures sudo by default both for terminal use and automates its use for graphical applications. This eliminates the risks of a user logging in to a root desktop for day-to-day use. The taskbar alerts users when new software updates become available and makes it easy to stay up to date.
Help & Support (5 out of 5)
Ubuntu offers a number of different avenues for support. First, you can buy professional support from the Canonical Global Support Services team as well as a number of other companies that also provide paid support for Ubuntu. On Ubuntu releases labeled LTS for “Long Term Support,” Ubuntu offers five years' support. The Ubuntu website also provides extensive documentation maintained by the Ubuntu Documentation Team that any user can access for free. On top of that, the Ubuntu community has created a number of different ways to get free support from forums, IRC channels, and mailing lists.
One nitpick: the flip side to Long Term Support is that updates typically consist of bug fixes and security updates, but not new software releases. If you do use the LTS releases and need the latest version of, say, Firefox, you might need to choose between upgrading to a release with shorter-term support (released every six months), or waiting for the next LTS release. Still, the sheer number of support options are enough to keep the rating at “Excellent.”
Package Management (5 out of 5)
One of the best assets that the Ubuntu project has gotten from Debian has been Debian’s excellent package management. Not only does Debian have more packages available than basically any other distribution, it also can manage all of these packages relatively quickly and easily. Ubuntu takes this package management a step further by providing an easy way to manage packages from the desktop. Ubuntu realizes that many desktop users only deal with package management when they want to install and remove applications, so Ubuntu has provided a program that does just that. Click Applications -> Add/Remove to see a categorized list of applications that Ubuntu has available for install. Unlike many other graphical package managers, this program only lists applications and not the long list of libraries, kernels, and other packages available. This makes it quick and easy to say “I’ve heard this Liferea RSS application is pretty good. I’ll install that.” This program also rates all the applications by their popularity, which can sometimes help when you aren’t sure which program of a particular type to install. If you do find an unavailable setting, feature, or package, you can always click System -> Administration -> Synaptic Package Manager.
Multimedia (5 out of 5)
Ubuntu is good at identifying and configuring most multimedia hardware, and makes it pretty easy to even get some of the restricted third-party hardware supported.
One of the big annoyances on most modern Linux distributions is out-of-the-box multimedia support. What makes this more annoying is the fact that it isn’t a technical limitation–Linux distributions would face legal liabilities if they included some codecs, libraries, and other copyrighted software out of the box. Ubuntu manages this two ways. First, when you attempt to play an unsupported media file with Ubuntu’s media players, Ubuntu attempts to identify what packages you need and prompts you to install them. Even with this method, you might still find some holes in Ubuntu’s multimedia support; for that, there is the Medibuntu project (https://medibuntu.org). This project recognizes that the patent and copyright laws that restrict some multimedia libraries don’t apply worldwide, and provides a third-party software repository full of these packages so that you may install them if you are either in a country where these laws don’t apply, or willing to accept the risk. The Medibuntu site provides an easy how-to you can follow to add its software repository to your system. Once you do that, all of its packages will be available for install, and will also automatically update with the rest of the system.
If only Medibuntu could be included in the default install.
Price to Value (5 out of 5)
It’s hard to compete with free, especially with all of the great software that comes with the default Ubuntu install and how well it all integrates. Since you can order a CD shipped to your home from the Ubuntu website free of charge, you don’t even have to pay for a blank CD.
Taking everything into consideration, it’s easy to see how Ubuntu has become such a popular Linux distribution in a relatively short period of time. While some experienced users might not prefer the simplistic approach to the desktop that Ubuntu takes, it is still a distribution that you can feel safe recommending to a new or seasoned Linux user.