I just received an email from a friend: "Over the weekend my laptop died - man, what a hassle! Have you heard a single good word about Vista? Every machine comes with Vista and I really don't want it." Should he consider Ubuntu 7.10?
Ubuntu started out as a software project in 2004. A small group of developers organized their talents and efforts to create a Linux-based distribution, including application software suitable for a desktop environment. Eventually, the effort came to be known as Ubuntu, with the following ideals:
Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change, and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing 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.
Since then, the Ubuntu community has expanded and added developers and users from around the world. It's a great bunch of people. As just one example, the Massachusetts Ubuntu Local Community (LoCo) team, an all-volunteer group, recently organized an InstallFest at the MIT Media Lab. More than thirty people—from remarkably diverse backgrounds and varied interests—brought their laptops and desktops of all shapes, sizes, and vintages to install and discuss Ubuntu. By all accounts it was a big success. The Chicago area LoCo is holding a similar event on October 21st. Another group is working on introducing Ubuntu to college students and faculty.
MIT Media Lab Ubuntu Installfest, October 13, 2007
- Photo by Brian DeLacey
Ubuntu now comes in five flavors: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, and Gobuntu. The development name for 7.10 is Gutsy Gibbon. This continues a trend of two word code names based on an animal and a catchy descriptor. The first release, Warty Warthog, shipped in October 2004. The ship date for version 7.10 is October 18th. Here's a quick summary of what will be shipping:
Ubuntu: Ubuntu with the Gnome Desktop Environment
Kubuntu: Ubuntu with the K Desktop Environment
Edubuntu: Ubuntu for Education
Xubuntu: Ubuntu with the XFce Desktop Environment
Gobuntu: Ubuntu with no proprietary components; strictly following the "free" in free software
Ubuntu Server Edition: Ubuntu for servers (This article concentrates on the desktop versions.)
Each shares a number of attributes. First off, they are all free-of-charge, community-developed projects. Secondly, every six months new laptop/desktop releases are packaged and shipped. Third, an elegant graphical installer makes it easy to get installed and running fast. Fourth, the resulting installation is much more than just a traditional operating system—it is a complete operating platform, with great software for word processing, spreadsheets, Internet, graphics, and much more.
All Ubuntu releases have a common code heritage: they pull a huge amount of code from Debian. Established in 1993, Debian is the wise old great grandparent of Linux/GNU distributions. In April 2007, Debian reached a major milestone with version 4.0, with more than 18,000 free software packages running on eleven platforms.
Ubuntu enjoyed a rapid rise in adoption. Gerry Carr, the Marketing Manger for Canonical, told me that the United States is the largest Ubuntu user base by far, with Germany second, followed by the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil clustered at third. Carr described some of the new adopters as individual users appearing in IT departments, In addition, Carr said "I just meet more and more people whose machine broke or the license expired and then don't want to spend $400 on MS Windows and Office. What often happens instead? A friend comes around and installs Ubuntu on their computer to browse the Web and do email. We see lots of people putting it on their parents' PCs."
Walt Mossberg, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and has an active web presence, concluded in a September 2007 WSJ article that Ubuntu wasn't quite ready for mainstream use: "Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users." In contrast, one person who attended the recent Installfest at the MIT Media Lab put it simply: "Ubuntu is ready." Who is right? I will say this: I've been using Ubuntu since its earliest releases and the 7.10 release is easily the best yet. (For the record, it took me considerably longer to set up WiFi on a new laptop I bought with Vista than it took me to get wireless working on a laptop recently installed with Ubuntu.)
Outside the MIT Media Lab at the start of the Massachussetts
Ubuntu LoCo Installfest (From left to right: Brian DeLacey, Martin
Owens, and Sara Abbott) - Photo by Lynn DeLacey
Distrowatch keeps track of the number of hits per day for the top 100 distributions. Debian has remained in the top 10 during each of the past five years, Ubuntu didn't even make the list until it appeared as #1 in 2005, where it has stayed ever since with activity in the range of 2,500 or more hits per day. I've been told that approximately six million people use Ubuntu on a daily basis, although some people place the usage level as high as 12 million. One thing is very clear, Ubuntu is no longer merely a niche software product running on geek machines; it's become a full blown operating platform.
Ubuntu's development and distribution philosophy is built around the concept of community. Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, described the meaning of the Zulu word ubuntu: "In the old days, when we were young, a traveler through our country would stop at the village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food...That is one aspect of ubuntu...Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question, therefore, is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you...to be able to improve. These are the important things in life. If one can do that, you have done something very important which will be appreciated."
Ubuntu, as a software initiative, began as the brainchild of South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth who was a Debian Developer and Apache maintainer in the 1990s. Shuttleworth sold his company to Verisign in 1999 for more than a half-billion dollars. In 2005, he invested $10 million to establish the Ubuntu Foundation. Shuttleworth, who considers himself both privileged and lucky for his acquired fortune, has already given away half his wealth to charity.
Canonical Ltd., another company started by Shuttleworth, is a primary financial and resource sponsor of Ubuntu. However, they are not alone. Recently, it was noted that Sun is the largest single contributor to Debian. Never before has free, open-source software seen this kind of directed investment.
Ubuntu 7.10 adds highly attractive user interface elements with the inclusion of Compiz Fusion technology. This is instantly cool demo-ware. If you want to get a sense of what this functionality can do, visit Google Video and you will find impressively choreographed demonstrations by virtuosos of Compiz Fusion demonstrating their jazz of "Advanced Desktop Effects."
Not only do these interface improvements look nice, but they can also help you productively manage multiple desktops and workspaces with numerous 3D effects. These have been wish list items for some time, and they have finally arrived. These effects require newer video cards for you to get the full benefit, but they degrade gracefully on older hardware lacking the required graphics horsepower.
Printer installation also works much better. I have to confess, this is actually the first release of Ubuntu that I have ever successfully printed to paper, and now it's almost too easy. Ubuntu even politely notifies you if the ink is low, something that has been a more gruesome task to discover on other platforms. Gnash, a free Flash-compatibility plug-in, will be attractive to many. Automated Firefox plugins are a major step forward in Linux-based usability, while still working within a robust security framework.
Each of the official derivative releases includes some unique work of its own:
Kubuntu includes the same kinds of desktop improvements we see in Ubuntu. In addition, they've added the Dolphin file manager and improved desktop search. These features are getting an early release in advance of the December 2007 ship date for KDE 4. The LiveCD installed easily on my 700M laptop, producing an attractive desktop and a chance to play with the release.
Edubuntu promises faster thin clients with the added used of compression technology for images. Additional improvements help the educational market make the most of older hardware. The login manager has been re-engineered for improved usability.
Xubuntu, by design, is intended to be a slim, light release that can work on older, underpowered hardware. It's not the kind of release where you'd expect loads of new features. I found this release easy to install (it did the best job of any Ubuntu release in recognizing my finnicky SR1620NX video card.) Reports suggest it is faster than previous releases.
A wild card in this release is Gobuntu. Everything is new, since it's a first-time product introduction. There are no restricted files in this release—so if your video card doesn't work with an open source driver you may be completely out of luck. This is seen "as the test bed for developing a user-friendly operating system with no compromise in terms of the open source philosophy." This is essentially a software free-for-all that can go anywhere and do anything without restriction to license or application.
In order to test Ubuntu and gather some real-world experience with the releases, I dusted off three old machines—Compaq Presario SR1620NX, eMachines T4010, and a Dell Inspiron 700M. Each one had become a sluggish, poor performer by the end of its useful life with Windows. To balance my review with more modern hardware, I bought a brand new shiny desktop – Dell's 530N—to put Ubuntu through its paces. Here's the lineup:
Compaq Presario SR1620NX has 512 MB of RAM and a wimpy AMD 3400+ Sempron processor. It was reviewed by PC Magazine in October 2005 as "an unassuming PC."
eMachines T4010 is even older: it also runs with 512 MB of RAM and a low-end Intel Celeron processor. CNET's April 2005 review described the T4010 as an "excellent value for the money among budget PCs."
Dell Inspiron 700M with 512 MB of RAM. This spry little laptop came with a Pentium M Processor clocked at a mellow 1.60 GHz. I reluctantly retired this versatile little laptop, which was purchased in 2004, from active Windows service when a relentless round of virus attacks rendered it unresponsive to help from multiple, expensive, and time-consumed spyware doctors.
Dell 530N with 512 MB of RAM, a quick Intel dual-core processor, more advanced NVIDIA graphics processing, and a very sharp 20 inch widescreen digital flat-panel display, This one was pre-installed with only Ubuntu, keeping the price below $600 when I bought it in July 2007.
As you can see, all these machines have downright stingy memory footprints. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to build a machine that could meet the low standards of those old ones today. My test machines were inexpensive hardware using free software. If it works, it's a compelling combination.
I was able to install Ubuntu, Kubutnu, Xubuntu, and Gobuntu without any major difficulties. Installations typically took about an hour once I had the software on CD. This compares favorably to other software operating systems, where an equivalent installation and configuration might take a day or two. In addition, Ubuntu has a Live CD, which lets you run from the CD without requiring you to remove anything from your test machine. It's a wonderful example of "try before you buy"—except here there is nothing to buy since it's all free. (Ubuntu software is available at www.ubuntu.com. If you want CDs, through the generosity of financial supporters like Canonical Ltd., you can order them free through Canonical's ShipIt service.)
"Is Ubuntu perfect?" No, but it works really well and the price is right. I have one glitch with video on the SR1620NX in the 7.10 release, even though that same machine has no problem with video in Ubuntu 7.04. I can wait before I update that computer. (An Ubuntu developer has contacted me no less than three times in an effort to resolve the problem, so I'm confident of a good outcome.)
Another unanswered question is how easily I'll be able to upgrade my existing Ubuntu 7.04 system to 7.10. I have previously saved data files and then reinstalled the entire system when a major new version appears. All Ubuntu users will be automatically notified when new releases and other updates are available, allowing users to decide whether or not to accept the updates.
With all my old hardware now running pre-release versions of Ubuntu 7.10, they feel like they've been rejuvenated into peppy, useful computers. Each one of them handles the typical tasks of web browsing, email, word processing (with spell checking), spreadsheet, presentation, and programming activities (NetBeans, Java, Ruby, Swing, etc.) The machines can print to modern printers, play my music, and process my camera photos. Because of the robust security environment, I have few fears of viruses.
This article was written on the eMachines T4010, connected to a 24" Dell widescreen LCD. While Ubuntu was helping me with my writing, it was also playing music, sharing files (over a local area network and the Web), scanning the Web for the latest in news and sports scores, and running a number of additional programs not included in Ubuntu. For example, I installed Google's Picasa to transfer photos from my Canon camera via the USB ports. Google Earth installs beautifully as well: a virtual tour from the United States to China, using Google Earth on a 42" high definition LCD connected to a computer running Ubuntu, is fun for the whole family. There are software applications that I use on Windows that do not run on Ubuntu, but the variety and quality of applications that do run in Ubuntu is growing steadily.
Software development is an amazingly creative process that blends art and science. Open source is both more complex (with volunteers contributing from all over the world) and somehow simpler (as a self-organizing process, lacking many points of coordinated complexity) compared to proprietary development. Codeography is my term for describing and mapping where code comes from.
Working on installs at the Ubuntu Installfest at MIT
(Clockwise from left: Mike Rushton, Martin Owens,
and Steve Pomeroy) - Photo by Brian DeLacey
There are more than 1,000 developers working on the Debian project. A number of employees at Canonical work on Ubuntu full-time. In addition, there are 76 Masters of the Universe (MOTU) who work with open source developers to make sure the right version of up-to-date code is included in the final release. Countless other volunteers have contributed—I asked a few to comment.
Sarah Hobbs started doing volunteer development on Ubuntu and Kubuntu in 2005. She initially helped by providing IRC support and later gained experience with packaging. She subsequently served as a MOTU, and now contributes as both a MOTU and a Ubuntu Core Developer. I asked Sarah about the role of the MOTU, and she said, "Part of the role of Masters of the Universe is to monitor upstream projects, including Amarok for me, and make sure that we're sending our bug reports (in a useful fashion) to them. We also take fixes that they commit to their svn repository, and put it into our packages. For fixes of high impact bugs, such as security fixes, severe regressions from previous versions of Ubuntu, or bugs that cause a loss of data, we put these fixes into the stable versions of Ubuntu."
Richard Johnson is a Kubuntu Developer and also serves as a MOTU, helping to look after the "universe,"which is a large repository of free software that isn't installed out of the box with Ubuntu but provides a source of future applications to consider. He described his role: "I really don't have a specific role. The closest I come to such a role would be that I spend most of my time working on packages for Kubuntu, so most of my work would deal with KDE. At times I assist other developers in getting their packages to build if they are having issues, and every now and then you can catch me in the IRC channel (#ubuntu-motu on Freenode) helping future developers learn the process."
Andrew Mitchell has experience as a Debian Developer and Ubuntu MOTU. Mitchell described the flow of software as it makes its way into a Ubuntu release: Most of the packages in Ubuntu originated from Debian. Ubuntu pulls packages from the Debian unstable branch of code, which makes it especially important for bug fixes to find their way back and forth between open source projects. According to Mitchell, upstream authors write the majority of the code that finds its way into a release of Ubuntu, while Debian people package much of it up. Ubuntu developers also do some independent packaging, and a great deal of integration work as well as original coding—usually creating tools, which become packages in Ubuntu and can be pushed back to Debian.
Brian Fallik is an end user, working on software development projects between the United States and India. He relies on Ekiga and Ubuntu for communicating with his development team in India. Trying the Ekiga version in one of the early beta builds of Ubuntu 7.10 proved problematical. He queried LaunchPad and saw a bug report had been filed. Within a couple of days, the bug was fixed.
Kilian Krause, the Debian Developer currently maintaining Ekiga in Debian (but not in Ubuntu) reckons that Debian had found the very same issue. However, a roll-out of a new version would have been delayed until further testing was done. The bug was soon fixed in both Debian and Ubuntu, further demonstrating how closely this stream of software is connected together.
Fallik was thrilled when Ekiga was fixed—but there were many other encouraging moments in his use of the beta: "One feature that amazed me was the way plugins work. I launched Firefox and found that eTrade couldn't display some widget because the Java plugin was missing. Sigh. Having used Linux for many years I knew this is almost always a pain to resolve. With low expectations for success, I decided to simply follow the instructions on the web page and click to install the missing plugin. I expected either an error message, an attempt to install a Windows version, or an attempt to download and install an unpackaged version. Immediately Gutsy's update-manager pops up and asks me which version of Java I want to install! I selected the later version, which downloaded and installed fine. Simply refreshing the web page displayed the correct widget. It all actually worked together, and I had a native Ubuntu package installed. Wooohooo, as Homer would say."
Full Circle is a community supported publication that provides good coverage of the latest news from the Ubuntu community. Ronnie Tucker, the founder and editor, described the publication to me: "The readership of Full Circle is worldwide, we have around 30,000 downloads each month with the vast majority of the readers being American (followed by other English speaking nations). We also have translations from English to Chinese, Polish, Italian, French, and so on, these have monthly downloads ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. In the beginning most people found out about us through The Fridge (part of the Ubuntu site) and from the Ubuntu Marketing and News mailing lists." Now, Tucker explained, more blogs are starting to pick up on the publication. Issue #5 includes a "Preview of Gutsy Gibbon." The magazine walks its talk too: only open source software is used in creating the publication, something not all Linux publications claim. It's well worth checking out.
Building a new version of Ubuntu is a delicately interwoven process of activities involving people from all around the world. Much of the communication takes place via email and IRC. New volunteers are welcomed, and it's not too late to get involved and have a major impact on the future of this technology.
Ubuntu's community is already looking ahead to the next release. Releases are scheduled for delivery every six months, so the next one will arrive in April 2008 as version 8.04. (The 8 represents the year, and 04 representing the month shipped.). The code name is Hardy Heron.
The Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) will be held from October 29th through November 2nd in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is a working gathering for Ubuntu contributors and marks the beginning of a new development cycle for Ubuntu. Priorities will be agreed to. Schedules will be set. Coding will commence. As they say about the UDS, "It's not for end users, it's not a time for free support, it's not a time to meet and talk strategy. No suits, no tourists in short."
Success, even for free things, requires some serious effort.
Brian DeLacey attended the December 2005 Ubuntu Developer Summit in Montreal. He's thankful that his old hardware now runs faster with Ubuntu 7.10. He's also pretty happy that his newer Dell 530N runs Ubuntu on one half of a 42" 1080P LCD, with the Red Sox still playing games in October on the other half.
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