- Well integrated package
- good language support
- built-in support for Exchange and networked printers
- A lot of confusing text in the install process
- default colour scheme is brown
Ubuntu is described as 'Linux for human beings' -- the name is an ancient African word, meaning 'humanity to others', and also 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. As you might expect from this, Ubuntu is big on sharing: it is, and will remain, free of charge (although support can be bought), and comes in regular six-monthly updates under the guidance of charismatic South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who also has the distinction of being the first African citizen in space.
The latest Ubuntu version, 5.10 (also known as the 'Breezy Badger'), was launched in October 2005, and -- from its name at least -- sounds an improvement over version 5.04 (a.k.a. the 'Hoary Hedgehog'). It has had glowing reviews, won awards, and gone to the top of download lists. For distro-watchers, Ubuntu is based on Debian.
A free operating system sounds consumer-orientated, but Ubuntu is pitched at the enterprise -- witness the recent announcement that it has been certified for use with IBM's DB2 database. The main source of commercial support is Shuttleworth's Canonical organisation, but a number of other companies offer services in Europe, including some 13 in the UK.
Ubuntu is straightforward to download from the Ubuntu site, in two forms, each of which fits on one CD. The same disks are also available by post -- and at present even these are free -- to anyone with an account at the open-source community services site Launchpad.
The Ubuntu install disk can put the operating system on your machine (x86, Mac PowerPC, or x86 64-bit), while the Ubuntu Live CD launches the OS from the CD drive, allowing you to try Ubuntu without altering your system configuration at all.
We tried both. The Live version started fairly quickly, and gave us all the applications we needed. There was some waiting for CD reads, but the system was surprisingly usable in this mode, and it did a good job of showing off the features (more on these later).
The Live disk is not for general use, however. There is no password protection for any system functions. So with the Live disk running, you can do anything, up to and including a full disk format. Ubuntu Live makes an excellent introduction, and is a very useful disk to have around if you want to use Linux on an unfamiliar machine (as long as the owner trusts you).
For the full install, we gave Ubuntu to an old PC that had been labouring under a very tired Windows 2000 installation. Despite the 'Linux for human beings' line, the Ubuntu installer isn't the most friendly.. It doesn't waste its breath on graphical interfaces, but works in a blue-screen text environment that Windows hands know and, er, love. It's not bristling with help, but chugs on methodically, unless it hits a snag. For example, if the guided partitioning suggestions work, then you're fine. If not, the text environment is very demanding on file system knowledge, and awkward to navigate around.
After an initial install, the system goes back to add packages, until it has a full environment with a bunch of applications. The single disk uses updates across the Internet to make a complete installation and upgrade to the latest versions.
Unlike all the other Linux distros we have tried, Ubuntu does not ask you to set a root password during the install process. It actually, we are told, sets up a root user with a random password, that's never intended to be used. It then lets the first user have admin privileges, prompting for the password and performing actions through sudo ('superuser do') a Linux feature by which users can be allowed to operate with root privileges.
Basically, this is a way to hide the concept of 'root user' from people who might be intimidated by it. It has its critics in the Linux world, but worked for us. To use Ubuntu in a business setting, the admin will keep the first user account, and set up other user accounts with fewer privileges.
The operating system found most of the features of our hardware, including the network, and offered us the standard GNOME (2.12) environment with the usual applications -- most notably, OpenOffice 2, the Firefox browser, Gaim 1.5 for instant messaging and Evolution 2.4 for email, contact management and calendar functions. There's also a long list of games, which we didn't have time to explore.
Firefox and Gaim worked right away, while Evolution plugged straight into our email account. We noticed that Ubuntu had more mail account options than other Linux distributions, including the all-important Exchange connector -- and even a GroupWise connector.
The applications in Ubuntu are nicely configured for people migrating from Windows. For example, in OpenOffice, the document word-count feature is available in the same menu position as in Microsoft Word (under Tools), whereas other versions have it under File/Properties/Statistics (Ubuntu actually puts it in both places).
Adding a printer was easy and intuitive. System/Administration/Printing took me to the Printer screen, where adding a printer was a matter of clicking an icon and then selecting a networked printer.
To our surprise, Ubuntu also offers good features not seen elsewhere, such as a Language Selector -- and clearly the package integration has paid some attention to local detail. For example, on our machine, we selected British English as default, and found that the default Away message in Gaim was along the lines of: 'Awfully sorry chaps, I'm away'. Adding applications is also easier than with some other distros, thanks to the Synaptic package manager. The update manager works well, and comes with a front-end that explains the process very clearly while updating all parts of the system across the Internet.
Paid support from Canonical starts at $100 (~£58) per desktop per year/>, or $250 (~£145) with phone support included.
Ubuntu is very impressive, especially considering the compactness of the distribution, the fact that it's free, and the availability of a Live CD that can show off its functions conveniently.
The selection and integration of applications is good, and the update scheme works well. Connecting to Microsoft Exchange and networked printers is easy, too, so we think this distro should be fine in a business situation.
Some critics, searching desperately for something bad to say about Ubuntu, resort to carping about the default colour scheme, which is distinctly brown. However, it's easy enough to change to one of half-a-dozen pre-designed themes, or to create your own.