A few months ago, I was talking with a colleague about operating systems - and how much I loved the Mac. He offered another suggestion - and it cost just the right price. Ubuntu is a distribution (or distro if you want to use the hip lingo) of Linux. If you want a history lesson, it's at the bottom of this post - for those of you like me who are endlessly fascinated with how things came to be. Linux, to put it succinctly, is a "re-free" UNIX. (Why "re?" Why all caps? See History below.)
Ubuntu is offered by a South African company called Canonical Ltd., based on the African concept ubuntu (humanity towards others). I am so much impressed with Ubuntu, I hope you read this and figure out you can do it yourself. Much of what I did, I did it myself by simply installing from the CD or Software Centre included in Ubuntu. Some of the more technical points a standard person may not encounter, but it was easy enough to find answers in Google or the Ubuntu community forums.
About Ubuntu Linux
I have been using UNIX since the late 1980's. My parents had gotten XENIX (see History below), I had a job with it, and have been on and off using it for a long time. Its major problems, especially going to the fractionalization prior to Linux, were that it was a techie "hacker" operating system (not user friendly like Windows), software wasn't widely available because it had to be recompiled for each hardware platform, that had its own special version of UNIX.
So, I got ahold of a Ubuntu CD, and installed it on a spare computer (you know, us geeks always have a spare computer lying around for projects like this). Wow. That is what I have to say: WOW. Apple, with its vast resources, has come up with the ultimate operating system - fast, efficient, beautifully elegant, but you have to pay for it (yes, $30 or so to buy the OS, and the hardware to run it on is proprietary).
Ubuntu Linux is FREE. FREE. Read it again - free. The interface is just as intuitive as Windows, perhaps even more so. It comes with software, but most importantly it has something like iTunes App Store built into it. What's so great about iTunes? It is a single, simple place to find and download things you need or want - and it is filled with a ton of stuff. The Ubuntu Software Centre is built into Ubuntu, and has all of that. You search, and click Install, to get whatever you want.
Built into Ubuntu is multimedia (music, pictures, photos, etc.), instant messaging (or IM for those of you who don't know what instant messaging it), e-mail, and more. Firefox (my favorite browser), it used to have Open Office, but since Oracle took it over they switched to a knock-off called Libre Office. Anything you could want a computer to do, it does. Did I mention it was FREE?
And, it doesn't have the hangups of Windows - the slow performance most notably, crashes, etc. It is reliable. The only down side, really, is that sometimes software you want may not be in the Software Centre, so you may have to download and install it yourself. This, unfortunately, is not as simple as Windows. You will have to go to a command prompt and "hack."
What Have We Done?
The kids computers were constantly going down - freezing up, or just not working and I would have to reinstall Windows. Finally, I installed Ubuntu on them. What do they do? Play on the Internet (web browser), sometimes write documents. All done with Ubuntu now.
Using the Likewise Open utility I got from the Ubuntu Software Centre, I joined the Ubuntu machines to my Windows domain. Now the kids can log into Ubuntu using their Windows passwords. Basically, the only thing that changed for them, is that their computers just work now.
A long time ago, I virtualized my Windows server. This is my domain controller that controls peoples' passwords, allows the computers to connect to the network and manages traffic, and performs backup. That is, I took my domain server, and made it run in VMWare in a window on another computer. This meant I could upgrade the computer, install VMWare on the new computer, copy the files over, and boot the same machine I had run earlier without having to reinstall. Big time saver.
So, I installed VMWare on Ubuntu, moved my Domain server over, and booted it up. Simple. Well, not exactly - I had to do a few UNIX configurations to make it boot up automatically - took about an hour. Still, I went from a Windows host machine, which every couple of weeks froze and would have to be powered off, to a Ubuntu host running the Windows server in VMWare. It is rock solid now, and by the way runs on an old computer about twice as fast as Windows in the same hardware.
In the early days of electronic computers, you got computers to do things by moving wires around. If you hooked up the wires just right, pulled the lever or pushed the button, it would do what you wanted it to do - within its limitations. As they got more sophisticated, and transistors evolved to Integrated Circuits (IC's, or Chips), the idea of a central processor unit (CPU) came about to do the bulk of the work. Along with this concept came a programming language to simplify the numbers you would have to type in to make it do things - this is called Assembly Code (the numbers being called Machine Code). Of course, assembly is just letters representing machine code, so it really isn't much more readable than machine. But things got better - until finally after the first two languages were imaginatively called A and B, the next language was developed, C.
Along with C, it became apparent that the computer needed to take care of some common housekeeping tasks like file management (data being organized into files, and stored somewhere), memory management, eventually printing, security, and more. An early operating system was called CP/M, or Control Program for Microcomputers. This introduced commands to perform these operations.
Based on CP/M, a telephone company (the only one at the time) had an extensive research laboratory into computers, because they thought computers could be a huge opportunity in telecommunications for automatic switching. This lab eventually became Bell Laboratories (named after the founder, Alexander Graham). The team there used C to develop an operating system they called Uniplexed Information and Computing Service or UNICS, later changed to UNIX (trademarked as all upper-case) sometime around 1970. Uniplexed, because it did one thing at a time, as opposed to multiplexed, which it later evolved to be. UNIX provided operating system services - memory management, security, printing, e-mail as the DARPA-net (or later the Internet) evolved, and more. And, AT&T developed and gave away all this, for free, including the C source code to modify it.
Along came University of California, Berkley. A group there developed their own version, called BSD UNIX. A whole bunch of commercial versions came out, including one from Microsoft trademarked as XENIX. HP, IBM, Sun, Santa Cruz Operations, and many more companies had their own version of UNIX. Much of it was proprietary. At this time, DOS, and then Windows, came out - capitalizing on the research of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, who developed the basics of a graphical computer interface. The various warring tribes of UNIX couldn't compete with a unified front presented by Microsoft Windows, and UNIX took a downward spiral.
Then, along came Linus Torvalds in 1991, releasing Linux - a UNIX operating systems for IBM PC's. Linux is a re-introduction, an updated back-to-basics if you will. At the core is a standardized kernel of an operating system. Even though there are several distributions of Linux, they all hail directly from this Linux core, and merely put their own wrapper around it. Linux was ported to pretty much all computer platforms thanks to its open source. Business models were built around a company packaging a distribution of Linux, to make it easy to install and administer. Among the more successful distros of Linux are SUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu. Ubuntu is free, while the others charge a nominal fee. Canonical charges for services and business server software - but standard Desktop Linux is free - and will work for pretty much anyone, whether desktop, laptop, or netbook.