Happy Birthday, Ubuntu

October 21, 2009

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, announced by Canonical Ltd on October 20, 2004, which has become the most popular distribution of the free, open-source operating system.  Ars Technica has an article exploring some of the reasons Ubuntu has gained popularity by focusing on what its users need (what a concept!):

Canonical announced the very first release of the Ubuntu Linux distribution on October 20, 2004. Five years later, Ubuntu is the star of the Linux desktop and has achieved a level of popularity and mindshare that is unprecedented among the various flavors of the open source operating system. …

In honor of Ubuntu’s fifth anniversary, we are going to look at five ways that Ubuntu has made the Linux platform more human.

(Full disclosure department: I’ve used Linux almost exclusively for more than six years.  I originally got started with Debian Linux — a key building block of Ubuntu — and switched to Ubuntu a few months after it was released.)

The article lists five key ways in which Ubuntu differs from many other distributions:

  1. The Ubuntu Code of Conduct
  2. Short, time-based release  cycles
  3. Easy installation from a single CD Image
  4. Convenient access to useful proprietary components
  5. Strong focus on improving desktop usability

I’ll talk a little mote about the first three of these below, but first I want to mention one more ingredient that I think was vital in getting Ubuntu up and running: the founder and chief executive of Canonical Ltd, Mark Shuttleworth.  Mr. Shuttleworth, born in South Africa and a dual citizen of South Africa and the United Kingdom, founded the Internet security company Thawte, which he later sold to Verisign for $500+ million.  He was the second “space tourist”, and flew on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for an eight-day stint on the International Space Station.  He started the Ubuntu project through his company, Canonical, and formed the Ubuntu Foundation in 2005.  He is a very bright fellow with enormous drive, and a genuinely nice guy, who would be an enormous asset to any undertaking.

The Ubuntu Code of Conduct, listed above, is a reflection of Mr. Shuttleworth’s personal philosophy, and a sort of “Constitution” for the project, which aims to keep everyone working together to a common purpose:

The Ubuntu Linux distribution is named after an African philosophical principle which holds that the betterment of the individual and community are interconnected. This philosophy is at the core of Ubuntu development and is formalized in the Ubuntu code of conduct, a simple set of rules that Ubuntu members commit to follow.

One of the aims, I think, is to prevent one or a handful of “prima donna” developers from allowing their personal differences to sabotage the whole project.  Having someone in charge who actually knows how to run a business helps, too.

Ubuntu also introduced a program, new to the Linux world (and not all that common anywhere else), of making regular releases of the software, at six-month intervals.  Experienced software managers will tell you that there are three aspects of any software release: time, quality, and function.  You can manage the project to meet any two.  Ubuntu has chosen to settle on a six-month release cycle, with strong quality standards; if a particular package or bit of functionality cannot be ready in time, it can wait for the next release.  Releases also have well-defined support lifetimes.  This allows users to plan intelligently for upgrades, and allows new versions of software to be included on a regular basis.

Finally, although installing Linux was never, in my experience, significantly more difficult than installing Windows from scratch, it was somewhat intimidating.  (Most users, of course, have never installed Windows from scratch — it was pre-installed on their PCs by the manufacturers.)  The Debian Linux distribution, from which Ubuntu is derived, came on several CDs, and the user had to select subsets of the available software packages to be installed.  Ubuntu really pioneered the idea of installation from a “live CD”, from which a user could boot and run the system to try it without making any permanent changes to the PC.  If he liked what he saw, a hard disk installation, dual booting with Windows if desired, could be set up in something like 15 minutes.

That basic system comes with a basic set of software — usable, fully functional applications, unlike the plethora of trial versions and advertising versions — so-called “shovel-ware” — that typically clutters a new Windows PC.  For example, the following applications are all included on the basic CD for Ubuntu 9.10, which will be released next week:

  • Firefox Mozilla’s Web browser
  • Evolution for E-mail
  • The GIMP for photo and image editing
  • OpenOffice the open-source office suite
  • Language processors for Perl and Python, and the GNU C compiler
  • Security Software including firewall setup (the firewall itself is built into the kernel) and AppArmor application profiles.
  • Multi-media Programs for audio and video viewing
  • Utilities the usual Unix/Linux suspects, a spell-checker, games, and more.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; and Ubuntu uses the truly terrific Debian package management system, which makes it easy to add additional software packages as desired.  (Currently, this laptop is running Ubuntu 8.04, which lists 25,288 packages available in the Internet repository.)  Since all software in the distribution, and its dependencies, is tracked with the package manager, keeping track of system and application updates is a breeze.

As I’ve mentioned here previously, there are a couple of official variants of Ubuntu:

  • Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop manager instead of the GNOME manager used in standard Ubuntu.
  • Xubuntu uses the Xfce desktop, which requires significantly fewer hardware resources than either GNOME or KDE, making it an attractive option for older PCs

There is also an Edubuntu variant designed especially for educational use.  All of these variants use the same core operating system, and packages from the different versions can be inter-mixed.  (More information is available in the community documentation pages.)

If you are happy with your Windows PC, or with your Apple Mac, that’s great.  But if you are looking for something a bit different, and are willing to experiment a bit, give Ubuntu a try.

Seeing the Light

October 21, 2009

It was 130 years ago today, on October 21, 1879, that Thomas Edison demonstrated his first successful incandescent light bulb, which, according to an article in Wired, lasted 13½ hours before burning out.  That lamp was one of Edison’s first to use a carbon filament: specifically, carbonized cotton thread.  Edison went on to test, by his reckoning, about 6,000 different carbonized organic fibers to find the one best suited to use in light bulbs.  The favorite for a number of years was carbonized bamboo, until it was superseded by tungsten filaments by about 1910.

Edison had originally estimated that the development of the incandescent lamp would take about three or four months.  In the end, it took his team of 40 researchers about 14 months and 1,200 experiments, at a cost of about $40,000 (equivalent to about $850,000 today).

The incandescent bulb has had a good run for over a century, but it seems that its demise is in sight. Compact fluorescent lamps, LEDs, and other lighting technologies seem set to take over.  Still, as the writer Fran Lebowitz says, Edison made it possible for us to read at night, which is an invention worth celebrating.

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