The Zulu word Ubuntu roughly translates to "community" or "humanity to others," but a more accurate meaning is, "I am because we are; we are because I am." Not coincidentally, then, the Linux distribution Ubuntu seeks to bring this philosophy of selflessness to software development. To me, it best encapsulates what is wonderful about open source software (OSS) development, and seems to rise above the politics that so often tarnish that movement. Ubuntu is my favorite Linux distribution, and if you're curious about life on The Other Side (tm), I can't think of a better place to start.
As I wrote in Alt.Windows in Connected Home Express (March 30, 2005), Linux may be a bit untamed when compared to commercial offerings like Windows and Mac OS X, but it's getting better. In some ways, the biggest obstacle holding back Linux is choice: There are so many Linux distributions to choose from, it's hard to know where to start.
On a similar note, a few years ago, most Linux distributions were all about heft: The distribution makers threw in every conceivable option, utility, and application imaginable, almost as if to silence critics about the lack of available software for the system. That approach leads to a complicated operating system, however, so modern Linux distributions like Ubuntu are taking a different tact. Instead of giving you everything but the kitchen sink, Ubuntu delivers only the very best utilities and applications, and rarely are there two or more examples of the same type of application.
Ubuntu (Figure) is based on the GNOME desktop environment, which happens to be my favorite (the other major Linux desktop environment, KDE, is too flashy for my tastes). In Ubuntu 5.04, the latest version as of this writing, GNOME takes on a Mac-like aura, with a main system menu that is always available on the top of the screen, and precious little else in the way of busy UI bits (Figure).
The bundled applications are excellent and well-chosen. Ubuntu 5.04 includes the Evolution email client and Firefox Web browser, the OpenOffice.org 1.1.3 office productivity suite, various multimedia applications, and a full suite of accessories, small games, and system configuration utilities. When you consider that many, many computer users really just need an email client, Web browser, and maybe a word processor, you can see where a no-cost solution like Linux starts to make sense. Now couple those needs with the uncluttered simplicity of the Ubuntu Linux UI, and you've got a winner.
Because Ubuntu is based on the well-regarded Debian Linux distribution, it uses that system's well-regarded "apt" software update technology to keep the system up to date (Figure). And because it's Linux, the system is secure out of the box (so to speak, there's no real box), requiring you to create a normal user account and then supply the password to an admin-level account whenever you attempt to make a change to the system.
Ubuntu is a Linux distribution aimed at real human beings, and as such is appropriate for just about any computer user. You may need a more technical person to help you set it up, but once you get up and running in Ubuntu, you'll feel right at home.