Wednesday, November 18, 2009


It's not that I gave up on Windows, I just found something better. I'm a member of a generation of computer-users, and while I may be more in-the-weeds than most of my friends, I'm far from an expert. I don't even know how to program, really. When I tell people that I use Linux - that I'm a full on, non-dual-booting, hardcore Ubuntu* user - they tend to think that I'm crazy, or stupid, or so extremely computer-savvy that I simply don't notice that, "hello," it's Linux.

*I should include Desmond Tutu's explanation of the meaning of "Ubuntu" (h/t to Wikipedia): "One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity." Enough said.

I'm going to tell you a secret, though. Ubuntu is easier to use than Windows* and it's easier to use than OSX. Those are probably contentious things to say, especially since many people have a fierce loyalty to either PC or Mac these days, a situation encouraged by both companies for many of the same reasons that Coke and Pepsi encourage rivalry (or Democrat and Republican, for that matter).** That said, I strongly believe Ubuntu is easier because of my experience with all three operating systems and because of the philosophical backgrounds and business models of each of the companies involved.

*Caveat: I haven't used Windows 7 yet, though I plan on giving it a whirl (don't tell anyone) just to see if it's really as good as people say. That said, the if the Registry still exists, Ubuntu is still easier to use.

**This is, again, framing the debate. If you have to be either PC or Mac, how can you be Linux? If you have to vote Democrat or Republican, how can you vote Green or Independent or Libertarian? 'Practicality' ends up being the watchword, along with 'standardization,' and while those things are not useless, they are overrated, as Ubuntu shows.

My experience, of course, is far from standard. PCs I grew up with, mining the inner-workings for bugs and viruses, trying to improve performance and boot times, poking physically at hardware and metaphorically at software that was behaving oddly. All of that made Windows intuitive to me. In an age before the Internet could troubleshoot almost every problem you might encounter, I more or less knew where to look when something went wrong with my PC.

The problem was, sometimes there were absurdly counter-intuitive problems. Your CD drive isn't working? It's running to slow? You might think it's a hardware issue, or a driver issue, but what if it isn't? I distinctly recall battling for hours with my PC once only to discover that the OS itself (Windows XP) was storing errors inside the hardware profile for the CD drive, causing it to slow down. If that doesn't make sense to you, fine, don't worry. The point is, Windows engages in strange behaviors because it is built in such a complicated way.

Macintosh, on the other hand, is a whole different mystery. Because they assume that their users are not experts, they child-proof everything. If you want to manipulate the basic operation of your computer, good luck. Macintosh offers the ultimate in aesthetic customization, but don't you dare try to find your way into the kernel (OSX, like Linux, is built on Unix kernels), because then you'll make Mr. Apple very sad, and probably void your warranty along the way.

The differences in my experiences with the major two Operating System powers may not be typical - most users are fine with OSX, because they have no desire to mess around with the "guts" of their system - but they nevertheless stem from the respective business models of Microsoft and Apple.

Let me tell you a secret. Microsoft and Apple are not competitors. That's not entirely true, of course, because otherwise those commercials with the Jimmy Fallon lookalike and the pudgy dude in the business suit wouldn't exist. But, fundamentally, Microsoft and Apple are very, very different companies. Microsoft is, as you might guess, a software company. They produce Windows, they make games, they develop web browsers, they create file-types, and they make their money on the dominance of one program suite: Microsoft Office. Despite the gains of Apple, it's worth noting that Microsoft Office - that's right - comes with your brand new iMac. When you buy from Apple, you're still buying from Microsoft, even if you hate them. But that makes sense, because Microsoft is, again, a software company.

Apple, on the other hand, is a hardware company. Oh sure, they have software (iTunes, iMovie, iInstertProgramFunctionHere - they're creative like that), but they make their money on selling computers and phones and iPods. While Microsoft tries to dominate all things software and couldn't really care less what hardware package you use (Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sager, Toshiba, whatever), you cannot buy an Apple computer without OSX, and you cannot run OSX without an Apple. Hardware and software are one in the same, and because Apple integrates those two aspects of their production so well, they're also fantastically cheap.

Ha! Anyone who has shopped for a computer knows, of course, that a Mac with comparable hardware costs significantly more than a PC. Macintosh will tell you that's because of convenience and security and all sorts of other hogwash, but in reality it's because they have a monopoly on the hardware and software they provide, and because they're terribly inefficient compared to the PC tag-team of Microsoft and its hardware producers. Apple has to spend significant time and energy developing, troubleshooting, and building hardware. Apple also has to spend time developing, troubleshooting, and building software. On the other hand, Microsoft only builds software, and Dell only builds hardware. So the partnership of hardware company with software company leads to increased efficiency and increased competition, meaning a lower price for Mr. End-User, you.

That's not to say that Apple's model is flawed. It obviously is not. Because Apple controls all aspects of the computer's development, it has been able to build things like the iPhone and the iPod, and has made them easy to sync with your iMac. That's something that the PC world lags in, and will always lag in, because of the business models in place. Neither approach is right or wrong, of course, because both have advantages and drawbacks.

Which leads me, finally, to the actual subject of this post: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a free, open-source Operating System that debuted in 2003. It is a distribution of Linux, which is a free, open-source code upon which many Operating Systems have been built. If you've ever used the Internet - especially at a large company - you've probably used Linux without knowing it. That's because well over half of the servers in the world run on Linux due to its reliability.* Unfortunately, Linux is also incredibly complicated and technical, and was hardly the stuff of everyday-user software for a long time. That didn't stop Linux from making a push into the OS world in the 90s, but much like the original solar panel, it was introduced before it was actually useful, and lost an undue amount of credibility.

*Back in the 90s, the story used to be that Microsoft servers had to be rebooted at least once a day or else they'd crash. Linux servers could run a month.

Ubuntu is an effort to change all that. Their slogan is "Linux for human beings," and it shows. The GUI (graphic user interface) is clean and simple, and it comes with free software than can accomplish just about anything a PC or Mac can. Where Windows has Internet Explorer and OSX has Safari, Ubuntu ships with Firefox (which is free, and open-source). Where Windows and OSX both ship with MS Office, Ubuntu ships with OpenOffice (which is free, and open-source, and does everything Office does). Where you can buy Photoshop for OSX or Windows, Ubuntu comes with GIMP - which does almost everything Photoshop does - for free.

Because Ubuntu has become by far the most widespread Linux distribution in the world, it is achieving a level of standardization that allows its software to be well-supported. What's more, if there's something you want to do that you can't find a program for, it's easy to go into the Software Manager and find - in most cases - a free, open-source program that meets your needs. That's because there are a lot of Linux users out there who do know how to program, and who have already built software that does what you need it to.

What I'm telling you is this: Ubuntu is easy to use. There are undeniably issues that require a little finagling from time to time, but most of those can be solved by a quick trip to Mr. Internet, and that's true of every OS anyway. Because Ubuntu combines the security of OSX (there are no Linux viruses) with the powerful and intuitive interface of Windows (I'm not being sarcastic, the right-click functionality on PCs is a simple, but profound advantage over Apple) and an endless opportunity for customization that leaves both of the major developers in the dust, I honestly do think that Ubuntu is the finest OS currently available. That would be true regardless of price, but consider this: a state-of-the-art laptop that Apple would charge you $3,000 for, or that Lenovo would charge $2,000 for, you could get with Ubuntu for around $1,300. A lower quality laptop you could get for much, much less, and all because you're not paying for Office, Windows, Norton, or any of the other proprietary software that is factored into the cost of your computer without you even knowing it when you buy from one of the big companies.

There are philosophical questions about open-source software. Would open-source developers be innovative without commercial developers to pave the way (Ubuntu, after all, does borrow from both Windows and OSX)? Is it fair that so many contributors to Linux - either at the kernel level or at the user-software level - go unpaid for their work? Is there a need for open-source developers like Canonical (makers of Ubuntu), when big companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google are producing functional and effective software and hardware already?

Those are hard questions that I don't have an answer for. I do know, however, that as the computing world moves more and more towards the cloud, even the large companies are being forced to become more "open-source." The reason is efficiency. Where Microsoft has to pay a team of highly trained experts huge salaries to develop their software, Ubuntu has a massive and dispersed workforce, many of whom are not in the employ of Canonical. Windows will likely never try to copy Canonical's business model,* but many companies are increasingly operating in a hybrid fashion.

*They do have one, by the way, and do intend to become profitable in the long run. One of Ubuntu's big missions is "Edubuntu," which is a software package designed specifically for schools. The nation of Bulgaria - as it begins a one-to-one laptop program - has decided to run its entire country's school system on Edubuntu. They pay nothing to do this, but because they have such a large infrastructure, they do pay Canonical for technical support. In the end, this is still way cheaper than Windows or Apple would be, but Canonical also makes money out of the deal. If Ubuntu can break into the US education market, Canonical would stand to become quite wealthy.

If you're at all familiar with modern trends in computing, you know that the elephant in the room here is Google. Google, like Microsoft, is a software company. But unlike Microsoft, they are a Cloud Computing company as well, which means, among other things, they know the power of crowd-sourcing. When Apple released the iPhone, there was an explosion of Applications ("There's an App for that!") developed by users for everything from popping bubble wrap to learning to speak English. Those apps were developed, however, within a framework dictated by Apple, because the iPhone is run on proprietary software and hardware.

Google recently released the Android phone, with an open-source operating system. If they can get market penetration like Apple did (and Apple is one of the better companies around at marketing, something Google has never really needed to do since their money comes from advertisements and not sales), the Apps developed will put the iPhone to shame. Google recognized that it didn't need to protect it's software, because it wasn't making money on the software to begin with. Instead, Google benefits most when users can do whatever they want with the phone (with their browser, with their email account, with their blog, with their search engine, et cetera) because the more you customize, the more Google knows how to advertise effectively to you, and the more money Google makes.

Brilliant? Yes. And also by far the biggest competition for Microsoft and Apple there is. And also the biggest competition for Ubuntu, and Linux in general. Apple and Microsoft may continue to be powerful companies for a long, long time, but they also need to adapt fast to the realities of the new computing world. In my opinion, Google and Canonical are the two software companies most poised to become major powers in the next few decades. The philosophical difference here is not whether open-source is good: both companies will use open-source software because open-source is inevitable. Rather, the philosophical difference is whether advertisement belongs in your Operating System, and whether a company should collect and store your personal information so that they can better market to you. This is no trivial consideration, of course, but it will almost certainly get very little play in the media.

It is also true that Ubuntu is a major underdog as it takes on Google (and Apple and Microsoft), but it has already made tremendous gains since its inception in 2003. Consider that, by the estimates of Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu reached over 8 million users worldwide in 2006. Consider that, in 2006, there were 6 million X-Boxes sold worldwide. Apples to oranges, of course, but whereas you've probably heard of the X-Box, most people haven't heard of Ubuntu, even though it's more widespread than the X-Box. It is also worth noting that while actual numbers of Ubuntu users are unclear, the distribution can say this: it has more users today than it did yesterday.

Don't get on the bandwagon just because I said so, though. Just go to Ubuntu's website and download the latest distribution. Throw it on a CD, and you can boot it up without installing on your computer. It doesn't cost anything, after all.


  1. Hey Paul, it's D.C.

    James referred me to your blog a week or so ago because of a healthcare debate we were having. While I disagreed with you in some ways about your healthcare post in terms of the politic necessities of reform, I did want to say that this post was really really interesting and informative (as are the rest of the posts I read on here, for that matter). I'm tempted to give Ubuntu a try when I have some free time to fiddle with it.

    But the real irony of it all is that I am posting this comment while I sit in my Intro Computer Science class.

    Anyway your blog seemed sadly lacking in comments for being so awesome, so I thought I'd share my reaction. What's more, you are a frighteningly good (and interesting) writer.

    Hope all is well!

  2. I don't know if you've messed around with Opera Unite yet, but it's pretty cool. Maybe Ubuntu already has a bunch of that stuff built in, but I approve. It let's you share/download files between any two computers. I can friggin stream music from my computer on a different computer, or watch video! Now i just gotta see if I can get an app for my blackberry. Keep the posts comin', I'm enjoying them.