I’ve never been able to cook.
The few times I tried, the fire department showed up. But back in high school, for some reason, I would sit down every weeknight religiously, open a bag of Doritos, and watch Emeril Lagasse. I never attempted to cook anything he made; I just thought the show was fun to watch. Likewise, I hope you enjoy my blog even if you could care less about computers and just enjoy the history lessons. 😀
Let’s begin, shall we?
It’s funny how people are paralyzed by unfamiliar words.
So I boot up with Uuuuuubuuuuuu WHAT is it again?
You know that YouTube? thing? you put? on my computer?
What’s that thing on computer? Boonk-boonk?
It’s called UBUNTU. It can be pronounced “You boon two” or “Oo boon two” or even “Ah boon two.” But nobody’s going to know what you mean if you call it Boonk-boonk. (Yep, I’m pretty sure someone called it that.)
So what is it, exactly?
Ubuntu is a desktop Operating System (just like Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s Mac OS, and -for those old enough to remember- IBM’S OS/2). Except, instead of being a commercial product, it’s a piece of software written by tens of thousands of volunteers around the world. These volunteers hated popups and spyware so much, they decided to create something better. Moreover, it’s a living, breathing thing that is improved daily (as opposed to Windows XP, which debuted in 2001, suffers from ridiculous amounts of recurring woes, and receives the occasional band-aid update that just makes it slower). I’ll discuss the history later.
Here’s a screenshot of my Ubuntu laptop with a background photo I took (click to enlarge):
Basically, Ubuntu looks and acts the same as Windows, but you generally don’t have problems. No viruses to speak of, no trojans, no hoax security programs, no baloney. It’s not perfect, of course, but very close to it.
It’s designed to look as familiar as possible, with a few exceptions. For example, the Start button you’re used to has been cut into three pieces:
- Applications: Games, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, media players, web browser, utilities, etc.
- Places: Your personal folders, such as My Documents, My Music, My Video.
- System: Everything you’d expect to find in Control Panel/System Preferences. Cut into two subcategories – Preferences to adjust your personal settings such as screensaver and wallpaper, and Administration to adjust things affecting your whole computer, such as printers and updates.
You can even add fun widgets to the taskbar, such as a weather forecaster (displays a radar map when you click on it!) or a stock ticker (I totally just discovered that one now).
You’ll never have to buy a piece of software at the store again: Ubuntu can’t technically run software made for Windows (it is possible if you try hard). Instead, all you do is click Ubuntu Software Center and bam! you can download Apps until you’re blue in the face. Anything you want, all free. No App Store DRM either.
In summary, it’s software that can either replace or accompany Windows (you can choose between the two each time you start the computer). It does anything an average Joe would want it to do (i.e. Firefox and OpenOffice) but for all intents and purposes you cannot get a virus – not because it’s obscure, but because it’s inherently safer. No need to pay the Norton “security circus.” So how did it come about?
Scandinavian Origins (Dramatized)
Back in 1991, Finnish college student Linus Torvalds called his parents. He expressed his dismay at having to wait in line to use the school’s mainframes, and asked them to send him a personal computer. A few days later, he unpacked his new computer and set to work. “This is bunk!” he exclaimed, “This whole DOS business is far inferior to the Unix software we use on the mainframes.” So he scratched his own itch and created HIS OWN operating system to replace the primitive DOS that the rest of the world lived with.
He decided to name it FreaX, because he thought it sounded cool. Luckily, the more logical name Linux (Linus + Unix) was suggested to him by a friend. This story would have faded into obscurity right here, if it weren’t for Linus’ decision to share his work with the world.
“Hey, here’s something interesting I whipped up,” he told all 10 inhabitants of the Internet at the time, “if you can utilize it, feel free to download a copy for yourself. I’ll even include the source code [underpinnings] so you can modify it and give it away. If you do that, just give credit where credit is due. By the way, any suggestions are appreciated.”
(The preceeding passage was translated from “Ancient Geek.” Original heiroglyphs here.)
I’ll spare you the technical details, but it exploded from there, and soon mothers’ basements all around the world were filled with this software.
The Linux Explosion
This actually spurred a movement, known as Open Source Software. Software is no longer confined to copyrighted products sold by businesses. Nowadays, anybody can make a piece of software and release it under a number of legal licenses such as Copyleft, Creative Commons, or the GPL. Such software is given away for no cost and can be freely modified to fit your own needs. If you redistribute a modified version of the software, give credit where credit is due.
The optimist in me takes delight in the story of Linus Torvalds. While giving out his software code, he did not expect anything in return, aside from an interesting suggestion or two. Contributing to OSS can pay off indirectly. (Think about it: What if you could claim on your resume that you contributed to Firefox or some other well-known software product?)
The Eventual Reward
In time, Linux became just as capable as Unix, which was the Operating System software conventionally used in servers. (Servers, née mainframes, are heavy-duty computers used by organizations to crunch numbers and keep track of huge amounts of information.) After decades of legal battles, businesses were leery of using Unix because the Boogeyman organization SCO tried suing anybody for even thinking the word Unix. (Not really, but you get the point.)
Linux is also at the heart of many of your favorite gadgets: Motorola Razr phones, Sony LCD TVs, and TomToms are among them.
Many tech-bubble startups modified and sold their own versions of Linux, such as Suse, VA, and Red Hat. As a thank you, Red Hat and VA gave Linus Torvalds a few “token” shares of stock. After their IPOs in the late 90s, those tokens became worth around $20 million USD.
I’m Smarter Than You
As a concept, Linux is simply fantastic. It signifies legendary stability, bloat-free software, is free from corporate stagnation, and is modifiable by anyone interested. The problem? It wasn’t quite accessible. Sure you could use it on a server given the proper training, but I personally tried Red Hat Linux on my home computer in 1999, and found it too awkward, even with help from a Linux expert. Imagine how a beginner would feel!
Through college in the early 2000s, I asked many a Linux user for advice. A few times the response was a smug glance or a snort, implying that I wasn’t smart enough to use it. That’s no way to promote your hobby!
I tried it again in 2003, but it was still pretty unrefined. Meanwhile, the public continued to suffer with Windows “bluescreens” and other headaches. The Antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft raged on, but no real alternatives existed yet.
It Came from Outer Space… sort of.
Enter Mark Shuttleworth. Mark is a South African “Internet Billionaire” and one of the first Space Tourists. Oh yeah, and he’s a software programmer too. One day in 2004, he got bored of blasting off into outer space, so he asked himself, “What now?” and set off to solve the world’s problems.
That year, Mark formed Canonical, Ltd. in England. Its purpose: To form a new version of Linux that was user-friendly. Many had tried; all had failed. I myself brushed it off as yet another noble attempt at “Linux for Everyone.” Just what we needed, another Linux version with a cool logo and lousy content.
Alas it survived. I first tried it in 2006 and was shocked. It wasn’t perfect, but it was very promising, and every 6 months after that, I received a new and improved iteration. It wasn’t quite ready for primetime, but by 2008, it was there. Ever since then, I’ve installed Ubuntu on nearly every computer I touch. I have awoken.
The ancient philosophy
So what’s with the name? Glad you asked. Ubuntu is an ancient pan-African word summed up as “Humanity Toward Others,” but it means much more than that. Its Wikipedia article cites the varied interpretations of African leaders (the most famous ones of course being Mandela and Archbishop Tutu), and it’s a worthwhile read.
- This traditional African saying embodies Ubuntu well: A single straw of a broom can be broken easily, but the straws together are not easily broken.
- The Batswana interpretation of it excites my inner Republican: It encourages people to applaud rather than resent those who succeed.
- Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve? Mandela explains it as such, and it coincides heavily with my Kenyan-born uncle’s advice on the meaning of life.
Forget about computers for a moment and marinate on all that!
Ubuntu is definitely not one of those products whose nature is antonymous with its own name. It embodies very well the concepts of collaboration, generosity, respect, and freedom.
- It respects the user – No constant error messages expecting you to solve some buffer underrun issue, nor are you bombarded with popups or “Free AOL” icons.
- It “Just Works” – This phrase is the highest praise a techie can give: The product does what you want it to and then leaves you alone without constant interruption.
- “As familiar as possible” – Mark emphasizes this point in this interview with Slashdot. As much as I love the Macintosh, it will take you a week to re-learn it. Ubuntu looks the same as Windows essentially, save for a few buttons and color schemes.
- Free (Gratis) – After I tell customers about Ubuntu, most of them ask wryly, “Alright, how much is it, $200, $500?” – Indeed, it would still be worthwhile, but the software costs $0 to download, and always will. Canonical makes their money from optional tech support services.
- Free (Libre) – Open Source means anyone can collaborate, even you. Notice a flaw? Instead of waiting and praying for a fix next decade, you can email someone and it will be addressed. Yes, Ubuntu is developing at breakneck speed.
- Edubuntu – Finally, there are many sub-versions of Ubuntu. One of which is Edubuntu, which is the same as its namesake, but comes with TONS of educational software. It runs well on older computers that may be in your school’s “donation” closet.
Now that I’ve glorified Ubuntu, I’ll mention the drawbacks. Most of the time setup is easier than Windows (You can browse the web and play games during installation!), but it doesn’t come without its headaches.
For example, some laptop wireless cards are not supported yet. Too bad for you. There is a software tool called a “wrapper” that attempts to “learn” your card, but I’ve never, ever gotten it to work correctly. The same goes for Lexmark printers. No dice. Buy a compatible one. Your best bet is to stick with computers from Dell or System76 – they are two of the few manufacturers that both endorse and grant technical manpower to Ubuntu’s efforts.
Leave all the worry to me. After I set it up initially, you’re good to go.
I will eventually write an article that teaches you how to install Ubuntu for yourself, and talk about the helpful forums and clubs where you go when things go awry. In the meantime, give me a call and I can set up Ubuntu for you. Maybe I can talk you into cooking me some dinner?
Sources (aka Recommended Reading):
“The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond