The Linux Alternative

At the commercial level, This Open Software is a player

News | Sean Delaney | May 2008

To many, Linux seems like the operating system (OS) of commercial servers, computer technicians, and people that simply have time to figure out how it works. According to Market Share Analytics, Linux users constitute just 0.61% of users surveyed online for March of this year. This is opposed to 7.48% of Apple OSs and 91.57% of Microsoft Windows-based OSs. None the less, Linux usage is on an upward trend, as compared to 0.40% this time last year.

As with most statistics, they do not tell the full story. When we talk about Linux, Windows, and Apple OSs, we are talking about different versions that fit under those three umbrellas. For example, Windows could be Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, or Vista. Linux has many different distributions, also known as "distros," that can be considered in this statistic.

Linux is one of the oldest operating systems still in use. Initially the hobby of Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki, the first version of Linux appeared in 1994. Having begun his work in 1991, Torvalds was interested in Minix, a smaller version of Unix. The first Kernal, or the critical part of an operating system, was released under the GNU, General Public License. Since then many distros have been release, all open source and for the most part free. The exceptions are distros aimed at the commercial level that use proprietary code. For example, there is an open source and free version of the Novell backed Linux distro Red Hat, and at the same time a Red Hat distro that is not free as it has coding and support beyond that of the consumer.

It is at the commercial level that we see Linux as a player, where Linux represented 12.7% of the server market share in the first quarter of 2007, according to the analyst group IDC.

So what distro is responsible for consumer market gains? Ubuntu is fast becoming, what Adrian Kingsley-Hughes of ZDNet calls the "Generic Linux distro," the choice of commercial home users. Ubuntu Counter reports, as of April 8, that there are 29,030 registered computers running the Ubuntu distro, and this is a low estimate that does not account for those that have not registered. Even Dell and Tesco have begun offering some select models bundled with the Ubuntu distro.

Ubuntu, an African word meaning "humanity to others," is the brainchild of South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. In the 1990s Shuttleworth was one of the developers Debian, a distro of Linux. In 2004 he came out with Ubuntu, based on Debian. Ubuntu has updates to the OS around every six months, supporting previous versions for up to 18 months afterwards, and comes out with security updates and other patches. Ubuntu’s philosophy is that everyone should "have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees... be able to use their software in the language of their choice... and be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability."

Like most current distros of Linux, Ubuntu is easy to install. Simply insert a CD, that can either be downloaded and burned, or ordered online, and boot up the computer. The install walks the user through the process. Support for hardware is almost on the same level with other proprietary OSs, with some support lacking for Legacy and very new hardware. Ubuntu comes preloaded with all the basics needed: OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft Office or MacOffice, several media players that replace iTunes, Winamp, as well as several video and DVD players, Firefox, and much more software to meet basic needs. The look and the feel can be modified by simply changing the graphical user interface, or with any number of theme and style managers.

The biggest draw to Ubuntu over other distros is its use of Debian’s online software repository that features over 20,000 pieces of software free for download. This means that just about anything that one wants to do can be done in this environment without having to revert to another OS. There are a few exceptions, like games and high-end software titles, that have not been developed for Linux.

Beyond the software library, there is a large online community, with over 20,000 members, to help users with their needs. There are sections dedicated to new users, all the way up to the most advanced. Responses are usually prompt and informative, and have a mantra to never give up, with others coming into a thread to either echo the woes of the original user, or to give some new advice.

While Ubuntu and, more over, Linux have a long way to go to give Microsoft or Apple a run for their money, it is nice to know that there is a free and effective alternative to the big, and far more expensive, operating systems.

And on one final note, the research for this article was done on Ubuntu 7.10 "Gusty Gibson."

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