Ubuntu & You, Part 1: Trying Today's Most Popular Linux Distribution

By: Thomas Pletcher

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Not long after my article "What To Do with an Obsolete Mac" appeared, I received an email from a CMX reader named Gary Knight, who wrote:

"... just wanted to see if you got your copy of Ubuntu. After reading your article, I went to the site and downloaded it right then and haven't looked back since."

Gary is not alone in installing Ubuntu and not looking back — this distribution has been available for under a year, but it has already taken the open source world by storm. Since the first version (4.10) appeared last October, Ubuntu has become the most popular Linux distribution tracked by DistroWatch.com, and by quite a wide margin. Ubuntu has generated community buzz for a wide variety of reasons, and I'll try to outline these for you in Part 1 of this article. Part 1 will also present a basic overview of options for trying and/or installing Ubuntu, now at version 5.04.

If you've thought about trying Linux in the past — perhaps to set up a LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) workstation — Ubuntu is the distribution I would recommend to you. It offers an ideal combination of power and polish, which is one of the many reasons why it has become so popular. Part 2 of "Ubuntu & You" will show you how to install and tune a LAMP installation on Ubuntu, and will provide other usage tips for the distribution as well.

To answer Gary's question: yes, I did receive my copies of Ubuntu (Ubuntu will ship free CDs to you, and even pay the postage!), and I am very happy with the distribution. In many ways, it is the most impressive version of Linux I've ever used.

An Instant Success

As noted above, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) debuted in October of 2004, which explains its 4.10 designation. (The current release, 5.04, dates from April of this year.) Harder to explain, perhaps, are the very colorful nicknames each release comes bundled with: Warty Warthog (or just "Warty") for the first release, Hoary Hedgehog ("Hoary") for the second. Ubuntu is on a six-month release schedule, so the next version (5.10, or Breezy Badger) will appear this October.

The nicknames may seem silly, but Ubuntu is anything but. To become the most popular Linux distribution in such a short time frame, Ubuntu had to get virtually everything exactly right, and it did. There are so many superlatives attached to this distro that it's hard to know where to begin. And, in addition to Ubuntu's technical and aesthetic strengths, there is a feel-good social overlay to using this OS as well.

Let's start with the name itself: Ubuntu is a South African word translating very roughly as "humanity towards others." Another translation might be "The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity" — a pretty good fit for a Linux distribution, I'd say, but one has the impression that Ubuntu is meant in the larger sense.

Certainly the distribution has laudable, altruistic aims. Ubuntu states on its website's "Philosophy" page that "Our work on Ubuntu is driven by a philosophy on software freedom that we hope will spread and bring the benefits of software technology to all parts of the globe." Central among those benefits are the beliefs that:

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

Ubuntu, in its first two releases, has done an excellent job of adhering to these goals, while at the same time offering a balance of power and ease of use, and a polished, nicely detailed user interface. As a consequence, it has become an instant success, and one of the most exciting open source projects in recent years.

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