Thursday, February 17, 2011

What is Ubuntu?

Ubuntu is an open source and community developed operating system for desktops and servers. It is free to download and use and there are regular new releases and security updates. You can either  download it  from the Ubuntu website, or get a free CD shipped to you.1

Ubuntu’ is an African word meaning ‘humanity to others’, or ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.2 It is one of the founding principles of post-apartheid South Africa.3 This is also the spirit by which the Ubuntu software distribution operates. Even the colour of the default theme is inspired by this –
it is, unusually, brown – supposedly a ‘human’ colour.

The distribution is based on Linux, using the open source Debian GNU/Linux as a foundation.5 The purpose of Ubuntu, however, was to create ‘Linux for human beings’ – in other words, to make open source software a realistic option for everyone, regardless of their IT proficiency.6 An important aspect of this is the technical support Ubuntu provides. Users can get help from the Ubuntu community’s range of
documentation, chat, mailing lists, or users can purchase professional support from Canonical Ltd, the company which sponsors Ubuntu.

Ubuntu began life in April 2004 when internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth gathered together a group of open source developers to create a new Linux desktop. The first official release came in October 2004 with the code name ‘Warty Warthog’, and following releases had similarly alliterative, wildlife-inspired titles, such as ‘Dapper Drake’ or ‘Feisty Fawn’.8 A number of official derivatives of Ubuntu are available, including Kutunu, Edubuntu, and Xubuntu, each tailored for a different audience or desktop environment.9 Google has also created its own Linux distribution for the desktop based on Ubuntu – Goobuntu. There has been some speculation that Google might ultimately be intending to enter the OS market through development of this derivative.10

Shuttleworth made a considerable fortune in the dot-com era, selling his internet consultancy, Thwate, in 1999 for half a billion dollars and founded HBD Venture Capital and The Shuttleworth Foundation.11

He is probably best known for his space mission in April 2002
and has spent around $25 million on Ubuntu so far, hiring top-quality open source developers and negotiating with computer manufacturers to begin shipping their PCs with Ubuntu.14 He claims to have launched the Ubuntu project because he believes in the open source ethic – the venture is not a money-making exercise - telling the Financial
, “It is not a sensible business model. But shaping the digital platform of the future is an incredibly interesting position to be in.”15  Developers who dislike the increasing commercialisation of other
Linux projects are attracted to Ubuntu’s commitment to remaining free.


Freedom is enshrined in the Ubuntu Philosophy; the code by which the distribution community and users operate. It stipulates that every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees. Language availability is also at the heart of the Ubuntu distribution. Its philosophy states that every computer user should have access to software in the language of their choice17 and Ubuntu is currently translated into 35 languages.18 ‘Freedom’ thus means both free in the sense of without monetary cost and freedom of choice, opportunity and action.19

The Ubuntu software repository contains thousands of software packages organised into 4 ‘components’ on the basis of the level of support they offer for them and whether or not they comply with the Free Software Philosophy.20 These are ‘main’, ‘restricted’, ‘multiverse’ and ‘universe’.

All Ubuntu ‘main’ components are under a licence which ensures that they include the source code and allow modification and distribution of modified copies under the same licence.21
Beyond this, Ubuntu ‘main’ and ‘restricted’ component come under one licence policy. This stipulates the right to sell or give away the software – you are allowed to charge to print Ubuntu CDs or sell customised versions, without Ubuntu requiring a fee or royalties. The rights under the Ubuntu licence may be passed on along with the software and must not discriminate against persons, groups or against fields of endeavour – for example, Ubuntu does not distribute software that is licensed freely only for non-commercial use, as this discriminates against business usage. The rights attached to the software must not be dependent on the programme’s being part of the Ubuntu distribution and they must not contaminate other software licences i.e. the licence must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with it. Sometimes authors want the software and modifications to be
distributed separately, so users always have a copy of their original code. This is allowable in the ‘main’ and ‘restricted’ Ubuntu components and modifications may be distributed as patches.
This licence structure is based on the Free Software Guidelines of the Debian project.23

The main distribution components contain applications that are free according to the Ubuntu Philosophy and are given full technical support and security updates by the Ubuntu team. This includes a selected list of applications that the Ubuntu developers, community, and users feel are important, which are designed to encompass everything most people need for a fully functional desktop or internet server running only open source software.

These are commonly used software applications which are supported by the Ubuntu team, although not available under a completely free licence – they don’t necessarily contain modifiable source code. Because of this, Ubuntu cannot guarantee complete technical support for these. Such applications are installed on Ubuntu CDs, but they are easy to remove and only included when necessary for running Ubuntu on certain machines.

This is a large collection of open source software from across the web, with a variety of different licences. The ‘Universe’ component does not have a guarantee of security fixes and support. It is intended to provide a ‘snapshot’ of what is available from the open source world.

This is software which is not free and doesn’t meet the Ubuntu ‘main’ component licence at all. Ubuntu does not provide fixes, updates or support for this and it is used at the owners own risk.27 

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