Ubuntu continues to emerge as a leader in mainstream Linux distributions and is increasingly friendly to the average end user. Much to the chagrin of Linux purists, who are more concerned with the raw power and customizability of the OS rather than developing a mainstream alternative to Windows, Ubuntu and other distributions like OpenSUSE and PCLinuxOS continue to march ahead with distributions that are truly usable in most educational settings.
Recent advances in video components and driver development are making Ubuntu quite a bit friendlier for the classroom (these updates actually apply to several upcoming distributions, but the visual changes to Ubuntu are especially apparent at this website). Eye candy aside, it will shortly be as easy to hook up a digital projector or other secondary monitor to an Ubuntu laptop as it is for an XP, Vista, or Mac OS machine. While some distributions have handled this better than others, all too often, users ended up editing configuration files to use external monitors. This is not fun in front of a classroom.
While Ubuntu 7.04 (their last major release) marked some serious improvements in plug-and-play-style driver support, 7.10 (the so-called Gutsy Gibbon release) will include automatic configuration of most printers. Similarly, printing to PDF files is now supported at the OS level, rather than only in OpenOffice, so virtually all applications can be used to generate PDFs. It also looks as though automatic installation of Firefox plugins will be built in as well, removing one more potential configuration step from average users.
As with their 7.04 release, it looks like Ubuntu 7.10 will set a fairly high bar for usability. This is a good thing, no matter what Linus Torvalds says; if all of the money saved by using an open source OS in your school is eaten up by training and setup costs, and the good will of the open source community is negated by your angry, confused users (the vast majority of whom have no desire to be Linux geeks), then you might as well use Windows. Alternatives are good and so is competition. While the alternatives don't need to look like something out of Redmond, it sure helps if they are user friendly. As soon as Ubuntu 7.10 becomes available, I'll pop it on a few student machines and let you know just how friendly it is.
And if you're wondering, check the countdown timer below to see just how long you have to wait (Are you as excited as I am? No wonder my students think I'm a geek...)