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Ubuntu: Linux with the XP-Factor

Ubuntu is Linux for normal people. It's the Linux OS with the XP-Factor. Let me explain...

Everybody has a version of Windows that's their favourite. What version it is depends a lot on your age. Some of my older colleagues swore blind that Windows 95 was the pinnacle of computer science, at least when it was released. I remember hearing a certain phrase over and over again in the late 90s: "Microsoft have got it just right with 95."

For others, Windows 98 is their favourite. This was in effect Windows 95 Mark II, of course. For some desperately misguided souls, Windows Me tops their list.

(Have you noticed a curious feature about Microsoft is that they take two or three attempts to get things right? We see this playing out right now with Windows 7, which is effectively Windows Vista Mark II. Xbox 360 is Xbox Mark II, and nobody really used Windows until it reached version 3.1 back in 1992.)

For most people, Windows XP is their favourite Windows. If asked to express a preference, I'll probably agree, despite the fact I'm an open-source guy. It's a solid and functional operating system.

Somehow Microsoft got everything just right with XP, but it's extremely hard to quantify exactly what. The gut reaction is to say that it's easy to use, but I don't think that's true.

Many people I've worked with fail to grasp even XP's basic concepts, despite years of use. Often I'll explain something as simple as the search function of file browsing windows, and their eyes will widen as if I've just revealed the location of the Holy Grail. Unlike, say, Mac OS X, Windows has never gone out of its way to be easy to use.

Does XP come with all the features we need, then? Far from it. It's shocking how basic a fresh installation of XP is. It's almost useless. Few media file formats are supported by Windows Media Player, for example.

XP doesn't read PDF files. Practically none of your hardware will be supported. But, of course, all of these vital features are just a free download away, and this is perhaps a key point: it's easy to mould XP into how you like it. There's a whole industry devoted to just that purpose.

So how about this for a definition of why XP is so universally admired: It doesn't do anything stunningly well, but with a little effort it will do a wide range of things reasonably well.

Doing things reasonably well is good enough for most of us. It's all we need. We don't require anything else.

That last point is one Microsoft is simply unable to accept. It can't. Companies have to progress - they have to make better products. They can't stand still. In some ways, it was a mistake for Microsoft to make Windows XP so good. With XP, Microsoft reached the top of the bell curve. It can only go down now, and the more it starts sliding, the faster the descent becomes.

As the open source guru Jeremy Allison once pointed out, Microsoft will never disappear. But it can easily become irrelevant. This is happening already. Only the uneducated use Internet Explorer nowadays, for example. Most people use Mozilla Firefox instead, and its with Firefox where the most useful and innovative features can be found.

Faced by customers clinging to Windows XP, Microsoft has had no choice but to avoid shooting it in the head. It has extended support until 2014 (it should have ended this April), and given manufacturers permission to offer a bizarre option on all computers they sell, whereby they install XP instead of the newer Vista. I'm told this "downgrade" is far more popular than it should be.

But pretty soon XP will be a vague memory to most users. Microsoft may have slipped up with Vista, but you're gonna get Windows 7 whether you like it or not. But don't worry, because it'll be faster and more secure! Just like XP was before it... and Windows Me before that! And 98 before that!

I have a solution for your XP woes. Unless you've been lobotomized, you might think you've guessed what it is: Linux. But you would be wrong. I don't generally recommend Linux. I recommend Ubuntu. You see, Ubuntu is a special version of Linux. Ubuntu is Linux for human beings. That's their tag line, in fact, and it needs some explanation.

Versions of Linux tend to fall into one of two categories. First there are the industrial tools, like SUSE and Red Hat. These are designed for corporate environments, and are designed to run big computers like servers. They tend to boot to a black screen and a flashing cursor, unless you configure them otherwise.

They're superb for the tasks they're put to (acting as a node on the internet, or serving files in an office), but they're not so good for you and me.

Then there are the hobbyist versions of Linux, like Gentoo or Mandriva. These are better for our purposes, but like any hobby, there's a knowledge bar stopping just anybody getting involved.

A classic chicken and egg situation arises: you need to know quite a bit about Linux to get started, but you won't be able to learn that knowledge until after you've got started. The community surrounding these versions of Linux can be helpful, but if you lack the very basic knowledge, they have a habit of slamming the door in your face.

Ubuntu is arguably a little bit of both, but it's got a vital third element - approachability. It's like a warm pub on a cold night - inviting and welcoming to everybody.

If you switch to Ubuntu you're still gonna have to learn stuff. That's just the way computers are. But Ubuntu also has that magical "Windows XP factor" - it's as functional as you need it to be, yet is still accessible. It 'just works' too - there's usually no need to install drivers, or add-on software. You install, and go. Everything comes together very nicely.

I'd argue that Ubuntu is unique amongst version of Linux in this regard (oh boy, am I gonna get into trouble for saying that - should you stumble upon my beaten corpse, tell Laura I loved her).

I don't even think of Ubuntu as a version of Linux. I put it in a category of its own, and I'm not alone - there's an increasingly common consensus amongst the internet digerati is that there are four operating system choices: Windows, Mac OS X, Ubuntu, and 'other Linux'.

In short, there's never been a better time to give Ubuntu a try. But I've saved the best until last: Ubuntu is also a huge worldwide community. Indeed, some people define Ubuntu as a community gathered around a particular operating system, rather than the other way around. So come and join us. You'll be welcome. If you do get stuck in your Ubuntu adventure, or simply want to learn more, visit ubuntuforums.org. This is the official forums site, and undoubtedly the hub for the Ubuntu community.

Once there, head for the Absolute Beginners forum. You'll find lots of people willing to help you.

Keir Thomas blogs for PCWorld.com

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