Ubuntu? What's that?
(Note: This article was originally written for a Korean newspaper.)
The short answer is: Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux, an open source operating system. However, you might be wondering what this means? Distribution? Linux? Open source? Operating system? To provide a fuller answer, we must first know a little about how software programs are created.
To create a software program such as MS Office, Photoshop or iTunes, a software programmer writes the program in a human-readable programming language. This is called 'source code'. In order for a computer to run the program, the source code must be converted, or 'compiled' into 'executable code' that the computer can understand.
Most programs produced by commercial software vendors, like Microsoft, Adobe and Apple, have their company's technology in them, and naturally they don't want to give their secrets away, so they don't provide the source code when you buy their software. This type of software is 'proprietary' (because it is owned by the software company) and 'closed source' because you only receive the executable code.
Now, before I continue, I need to clear up a misunderstanding. You may know about Freeware; software that is given away for free. Examples of this type of software are AVG anti-virus, CCleaner system optimization tool and LimeWire downloading software. While these programs may be perfectly good, they are not open source because only the executable code is provided; you don't have access to their source code. Additionally, these types of programs are given away with licenses that allow only free personal use on one computer; commercial use must be paid for the same as other commercial programs.
An 'operating system' is a special software program that allows you to use your computer hardware. It's sole purpose is to enable you to use the devices (disk drives, keyboard, mouse, screen, etc.) attached to the computer. Microsoft Windows XP and Mac OSX are both operating systems.
'Open source' programs are written the same way as commercial programs above, but with some significant differences.
Open source technology is not usually owned by anyone in the traditional proprietary sense (see above).
Open source program code is usually released under a license which requires that the source code of the program be freely available, and that any program that uses that source code must also be released under the same license3. This effectively makes the resulting programs cost free because anyone can download the source code and compile their own executable code.
You may think that open source software is only used by a small number of computer experts. But you'd be wrong. 53% of web servers on the Internet use Apache4, an open source web server program. Naver, one of Korea's biggest portal sites, uses Apache5.
'Linux' is an open source operating system6. It was created by a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds in 1991, as a university project. It is conceptually based on UNIX, a stable, secure, multi-user operating system, developed by AT&T in 1969. Now, as we know, an operating system only allows you to use your computer. We need software programs to actually do something useful, like surf the Internet, write emails and listen to music.
A 'Linux distribution' is a full set of software programs (e.g. email program, web browser, word processor, media player, and all the rest) bundled together with the Linux operating system and released on a single installation media, i.e. a CD or DVD. Linux distributions are put together by individuals, groups of people or even companies. They can be put together to perform specific tasks, e.g. a regular desktop computer, a web or email server, a video editing workstation, or whatever you can think of.
Now that we have a little background knowledge, I can tell you about Ubuntu.
Ubuntu was started in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth, a South African multi-millionaire who sold his Internet security company to VeriSign for US$575 million in 19997. The first Ubuntu release was in October of 2004.
“Ubuntu” is an African word which embodies the ethical concepts of community, sharing, generosity and relationships among people. This ethic forms the core of Ubuntu's business philosophy8:
- 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.9
and also its commitment to software freedom:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.10
Now on its twelfth release, Ubuntu, available in 46 languages including Korean, has captured just over 50% of the desktop Linux 'market'.11 Ubuntu is reliable, stable and secure; there are no viruses for Linux. And currently there are over 30,000 free open source programs available from Ubuntu.
So what's the downside? Well, Windows holds about 87% of the desktop computer market and Internet Explorer holds roughly 54% of the web browser market. Because of this, a lot of web development is targeted towards only these technologies. Sites developed this way often do not adhere to internationally agreed standards. Instead, Microsoft's own proprietary 'standards' are used, which require the use of Windows and Internet Explorer for proper functionality. This is called vendor 'lock-in'. Imagine buying a Hyundai car and having to buy the more expensive Hyundai gasoline in order to run it!
Another possible downside for some is that Ubuntu, and Linux in general, is not designed for gaming, for much the same reason as above. This is not to say that Linux couldn't be used for gaming, it's just that games aren't written to run on Linux12. For everything else, however, Ubuntu is as capable as, if not better than, Windows.
If you want to try Ubuntu you can download a LiveCD and use it without installing it or making any changes to your computer. Visit the Ubuntu website for more information.
Ubuntu - http://www.ubuntu.com/
The Open Source Initiative - http://www.opensource.org/
The Free Software Foundation - http://www.fsf.org/
Creative Commons - http://creativecommons.org/
The General Public License - http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html
1 Although these people may be paid software programmers in their 'day job'.
2 Sun Microsystems, one of the largest computer hardware companies in the world, contributes to the development of OpenOffice.org, an open source office suite similar to MS Office.
3 This is an example of “Copyleft” licensing, which requires that derivative works be released under the same license. The General Public License and the Creative Commons Share-Alike license are examples of this type of license.
4 Source - http://www.netcraft.com/
5 Source - http://toolbar.netcraft.com/site_report?url=http://www.naver.com
6 It's actually a little more complicated than this, but for a brief overview it's an adequate definition.
8 This is also the guiding principal of the open source software community.
12 Although there are ways that Windows applications can be run on Linux. However, that is outside the scope of this article.