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Journal ancientt's Journal: Try Ubuntu, its like Windows, only free (disclaimers follow)

Ubuntu is like Windows .... and no, I'm not crazy for saying that.

I now advocate telling people to Try Ubuntu, it's like Windows, only it's free and the software is free! Not surprisingly it has generated a few disagreements. There are good reasons for some of them but I stand by my statement and here I'll explain why and also examine some of the valid points of those who disagree.

Is it derogatory to Ubuntu users? Ubuntu is hardly fair to single out as the distribution that is like Windows and there are certainly others that might fit the bill as well, but I like Ubuntu and there are some similarities in what is good about both. Ubuntu has a good track record of trying to be a secure system from the beginning, but to be fair Windows has come a long way as well. The Ubuntu system is designed to be friendly and easy to use, but so is Windows. I use both Linux and Windows and help other people use both, so I'm comfortable in my assertion that in friendliness and security, either is okay, provided you use relatively current versions and some common sense. There are things that either platform might be considered better at, but most people don't care about those things unless they present a problem to them.

Are they really the same? There is a difference between Windows and Linux in general. (See Linux is Not Windows. This page covers a lot of the topics in pretty good detail and is clearly written, I recommend giving it a read.) To generalize though, I say that yes, they are the same; They are the same in their basic function of giving people a platform to run the programs they need. They can be vastly different in a variety of ways but sit a person who has never owned a computer or professionally used one in front of either a standard Windows install or a standard Ubuntu install then try some scenarios. Tell them to set up and check their email, they will probably find that they can use either equally as well. Task them with finding their bank online, reading news or finding funny pictures and they will both work. If you ask them to print something, the same complaints are likely to be heard with about the same success rate. No, they may not be the same in many important ways, but the ways that count to the average computer user are close enough that to point out the other differences is counter-productive. They don't care, really don't care, whether something is GPL or Microsoft EULA and they really, really don't care what the difference is between Linux and GNU/Linux.

Why harp on the free thing? The biggest surprise I see people voice when they start trying out Ubuntu is that it is so easy to get new software and terror that they might be getting what they're paying for or worse, being played for a sucker. Sometimes I have to agree that the quality of the software is reflected in its price, but most of the time the software that people want is either functionally the same or it is comparable to what they would try in Windows. To them, the biggest difference is that they would pay hundreds of dollars if they wanted to try comparable software in Windows. Of course that can easily run to thousands of dollars, but most of the time the real benefit is that people who wouldn't pay thousands get to try something similar for free. Notice that I said "similar", not "identical" and not "equivalent." Programs like Gimp and Open Office are not the same as the products they are most often compared to, in fact often they are much more limited in use, or documentation or functionality. But to someone who has never used MS Office, MS SQL Server, or Paint Shop, they are a startling example of high quality software the Windows home user would never have used if it weren't free. Once someone is hooked on high quality software they never want to go back to not having it. This is the Linux lock-in. It is excruciating for someone used to Open Office and the Gimp to consider paying for Windows, MS Office and Paint Shop. If they get hooked on Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, PHP, or Perl, then yes they could go to Windows, but most will prefer the platform that is cheapest for the software they want. Even if it's Open Office, Thunderbird, Firefox and the Gimp, they have very little incentive to go to Windows when Linux does what they want. (Most, maybe all, of these applications can be run in Windows but the question people invariably ask is why pay for what I can get for free?)

Why Ubuntu? (The _____ distribution is better!) I recommend Ubuntu to people who I know don't need special programs that can only be run in Windows and who I don't want to educate on using a Linux distro. Windows users (typically) can understand how to get and install Ubuntu and once they have it installed, can use it indefinitely without needing my help. This is the biggest draw I have to recommending it in particular. In addition, it is intuitive enough that most people can figure out how to do new things they might want to do and it is widely adopted so I know they can find answers if they have questions.

Sometimes they will ask me if I use it, and I answer honestly that I've tried it but I tend to use things more complex, more geeky and more technical than I'd recommend for them. If that doesn't immediately reassure them that I have their best interest at heart, I explain that currently I have a command line only security based distribution called Annvix installed on the machine that doesn't have a monitor or keyboard, a high end server type install called CentOS (based on Red Hat) on one hard drive and I'm using a distribution that is actually a live CD called Slax but installed on the hard drive and set so it is running from RAM. (This actual response varies from week to week as I play with different systems, but that is a pretty good example potential response.) Most people's eyes glaze over at this point but in the few instances where they don't then I recommend Gentoo or Fedora depending on what I think they value most. For the casual question about what they can try, I send them to my webpage. The short list of why I recommend Ubuntu looks like this:

  • Red Hat - costs enough to discourage learning something new
  • Cent OS - designed for servers, too many server minded options for an average user
  • Debian - Not as easy to use for people used to proprietary software, not as easy period
  • SUSE - costs and, well it always seemed cludgy to me
  • Fedora - Good second choice, too many choices demanded for newbies though
  • Mandriva - I wish I could recommend this, but experience says otherwise

Yes, these are all opinions and people will disagree, but of course I speak from experience with all of them, experience with Linux converts and I'm not above changing my suggestions when the opportunity seems right.

Why would you want people to use Linux? This is the golden question. Linux is traditionally the geeky system that will cause people to have to do that thing which they most fear, learn something new. I want them to use it for two reasons, the first is purely selfish. I want as many people to use it as possible so that there is money going into the pockets of the people who write the software I appreciate. More people means more money and that translates to better software for me. The second reason is the one that I am embarrassed to admit, I really do want people to have better lives. A tiny part of someone's quality of life comes from how their computer works for them and what they spend their money on. If I can convince them to use Linux and they like it, then they will have more money to spend on things that they consider important and a more pleasurable experience when they sit at their computer. If I could change the public in two ways it would be to give them more confidence and more reason for confidence. Using Linux is a small way to show someone that they really are competent to use their computer to do what they want in the ways they want and if it helps them financially as well, I'm all for that.

Sidenote: The url that probably brought you here was created at because I couldn't fit the link and text I wanted into my sig without some sort of modification. The modification of the URL is one I don't like to make since it blinds people to where they're headed, but it does make my sig fit. If you would like to use my sig, it should look like:
<a href="">Try Ubuntu, it's like Windows</a>, only it's free and the software is free!

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Try Ubuntu, its like Windows, only free (disclaimers follow)

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Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.