Every few years software companies, most notably Microsoft and Adobe, release new versions of their software. In addition to spending money on the new software, schools must spend money on new hardware to run the more advanced software. Lately companies have been using the internet to disable features of new software as new versions are released. In Photoshop CS3 there were web-based features that stopped working almost as soon as CS4 was released. Microsoft has its restrictive authentication method that disables features if it can’t use the internet to “phone home.” It is a vicious cycle, but there are little-known alternatives.
One affordable and fun alternative is called Ubuntu. With a name derived from the Bantu word for unity and togetherness, Ubuntu is a computing environment based upon the Linux operating system. Its development has been funded mostly as an act of charity by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth.
Aside from the cost, another benefit of Ubuntu is that it operates under the free software philosophy. This doesn’t mean “free” as in getting something for nothing, although that is usually the case. It means “free” as in you are free to modify and distribute it in any way that helps you or your organization. Almost all Linux source code is free to download. This means the technically minded can completely reprogram, modify, or distribute the software. In Windows, the first that you do is click on a EULA (you know, that long scrolly text thing) saying that you won’t modify their software. Moreover, most non-Linux operating systems are licensed in such a way that you pay a per computer fee. In Windows, if your computer breaks down and you replace it, you might have to buy the exact same version of Windows that you previously used. With Ubuntu, system administrators can install the software on as many computers as they need.
Using Ubuntu isn’t quite as easy as using Windows or Apple OSX. When I use laptops I have experienced hardware compatibility issues, and I have had to search for fixes. For instance, early versions of Ubuntu required specialized software to make use or WiFi cards, and I’ve had slight issues with graphics cards. Fortunately, there are thousands of other Ubuntu users that participate in forum discussions and have many of the same problems in the Ubuntu Forums. After a day or two, there has never been a problem that I haven’t been able to fix.
Ubuntu comes bundled with all of the software that you’ll need for day-to-day tasks. Open Office is a replacement for Microsoft Office. It’s not quite as slick as Office 2007; but if you’re still using Office 2003 or Office XP, you might even like Open Office better. Banshee and Rhythmbox work in the same way that Windows Media Player and iTunes work. Moreover, the Ubuntu media players won’t install digital rights management on your movies and songs. This means there will be no limit on the devices that you can use and the number of back-ups that you can make. Due to some patent issues, installing DVD playback requires a few extra steps, but it is an easy process.
In a school environment, the Edubuntu add-on disc can be installed and you’ll have a full featured array of educational software to use. There are games for kids as young as three, educational networking features, research tools, music composition software, as well as mind mapping and note taking tools.
Similar to Mac OSX, the one thing that you can’t do with Ubuntu is play the latest 3D games. You also can’t use certain proprietary programs such as iTunes. However, in a school setting that is a benefit and not a detriment.
The best way experience Ubuntu is to try it yourself. In order to start using Ubuntu, you can go to the official site and download a CD image. This comes in a special file called an .iso which you burn to a disc. You can then stick it in your CD/DVD slot and reboot your computer. Having the disc in the drive will “boot to CD.” From this point it will load a version of Ubuntu directly from the CD. If you like the environment and it seems to work on your computer, you can follow the menus and install. If you select the dual boot option, you can select from either your original operating system or Ubuntu each time you boot your computer.
If you become a Ubuntu wiz, your entire computing experience will change. You’ll feel liberated from using Microsoft, the setup process will help you learn about your computer in new ways, and you will have the option to use a greater variety of software that is more flexible than what is offered for Windows and Apple OSX.
Visit the official website, and give Ubuntu a try.