Why isn't Ubuntu good enough for US classrooms?

Ubuntu clearly rivals Windows 7 in terms of stability, speed, and functionality. Yet school IT staff who try to take advantage of this free software often meet with serious resistance.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Have you used Ubuntu 10.04? It's my desktop and server platform of choice for basically everything I do. As far as I'm concerned, it has only two weaknesses:

  1. It can't run Office 2010 (the folks at WineHQ are working on this, but it takes a while and it remains to be seen just how well it will run outside of its native environment)
  2. It can't run Adobe CS5.

That's it. In every other respect, it works wonderfully. It boots quickly, it's stable, it's backed by a giant user community whose help and support match the price of the OS, and it can be easily customized to work as the most basic of web servers, a simple Internet kiosk, a free refresh for aging desktops, a high-end media server, a productivity workstation, and everything in between. It can be a terminal server, a high-performance cluster, and a virtualization platform. Huge volumes of software are only a few clicks away. All for free.
Sometimes in schools, we need Office 2010.  Sure, Office 2007 will fill the bill, as will OpenOffice.  The former runs well under Wine, while the latter is included with a standard Ubuntu desktop install.  However, OneNote 2010 and some of the more powerful features and UI tweaks throughout the 2010 suite make it hard to resist.
Sometimes in schools, we also need Adobe CS5. Sure, the GIMP is powerful, useful, free, and increasingly easy to use, but the feature set in the latest Creative Suite from Adobe is so compelling that I'm actually willing to buy the software when my evaluation licenses run out. And my wife will tell you that I'm pretty cheap. And CS5 isn't.

Next: Then why Ubuntu? »

So if I love these bits of software so much, why do I bother with Ubuntu? And why should schools? The second question is easier to answer. Notice that in both cases, I said "Sometimes in schools," meaning that oftentimes, we don't need Office or CS5.  Office licensing costs can even be reduced by accessing device licenses on an application or remote desktop server only if needed and serious use of Adobe's latest and greatest should be limited to graphics, art, web programming, and similar curricula. In a school with 300 computers, perhaps only a small fraction need to run Windows or OS X to leveragest CS5 and will invariably need to be beefier than the average school desktop anyway.
The rest can run Ubuntu on refurbished machines, netbooks that might otherwise ship with Windows 7 Starter or Windows XP Home, terminal services, etc. If all you need is Internet access, e-reader applications, and simple content creation tools (and Office Web Apps and Google Apps run just as well on Linux as they do on Windows), then it becomes much tougher to justify any Microsoft licensing on these machines.
And yet, Ubuntu, in all its free, stable, malware-free (well, mostly) glory, is seen as a substandard compromise in many US schools.  South American schools have embraced many versions of Linux. The Canonical Education site only includes recommendations from AMTRON and Spain.  "Kids will only see Windows in the real world," we still hear, to which I always want to reply, "No, kids will only see the Internet in the real world."
Even saving the roughly $70/machine Window 7 license on those 300 machines above would save $21,000.  That equals a lot of extra computers, projectors, interactive whiteboards, or interactive response systems that could be rolled out, all by choosing a free, high-quality alternative to Windows.  Ubuntu isn't a compromise but only a small fraction of schools, administrators, and parents in this country are willing to look past the fact that it isn't Windows.
Free is good, folks, especially when the things you're getting for free are just as good as the things for which you'd normally pay. I'm struggling to see the barriers to adoption in this country.  What am I missing?

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