In recent months, I have taken a very strong interest in the wide world of alternative software that is available.
Although I was aware of open source material before, I was always wary of the potential hazards. What if it failed? My files could have been lost. My computer may even have been left useless. But during the summer, I finally took a leap into the unknown and installed the free Linux-based operating system Ubuntu on an old laptop. Since then, my digital life hasn’t been the same.
I quickly became something of a missionary for the cause, distributing complimentary Ubuntu CDs to anyone who may be interested. An old rule of thumb is that what seems ‘too good to be true’ often is. There are also many people who still look upon non-mainstream software with suspicion, as it once carried connotations of knock-off equipment available at low cost. I ran into such a problem when I suggested Ubuntu to my housemate as a solution to his technical woes, as well as the language barrier.
“Linux?” he asked, followed by an emphatic “Is this a joke?!”. But when I showed him a polished and practical operating system running in his native dialect, his opinion quickly changed. In an increasingly multilingual world, Ubuntu’s foreign language support is formidable. With just a few mouse clicks, the working language of a computer can be changed temporarily to assist speakers of other languages. The system runs very smoothly in Irish, as well as various standards of English, French, Spanish and other languages. Encouragingly, these features were developed by a non-profit organisation and many of them are the work of passionate volunteers.
Linux has been available since 1991, based on the deliberately simplistic Unix codes of the late 1970s. Since then, it has been used in many different ways to streamline computers’ operations, in infrastructure, workplaces and personal equipment. The prevalence of broadband has allowed for its adoption by anyone with basic computer hardware. Installation discs are still a convenience but they are no longer essential.
Unknown to the majority of internet users, Linux is part of the daily rituals of most of us. The majority of servers on the internet are totally dependent on Linux, including email services, bulletin boards, blogs and news sources. Google’s Android smartphones run a derivative of Linux and the inner workings of Apple devices bear more than a striking resemblance to the format.
Since its first release in 2004, the Ubuntu operating system has been regarded as a beginner’s gateway into open source software. Named after a southern African concept of co-operation between people, Ubuntu is available free of charge. A new edition is released twice annually and anoraks have carte blanche to tweak and share the suite in any way they see fit. There are also many officially approved variants of the software designed for different purposes and user bases, such as the “light” Lubuntu for older and less powerful machines and Edubuntu, designed with younger children and their schools in mind.
Many free software packages come as standard with Ubuntu, including LibreOffice, which includes a word processor, slideshow suite, spreadsheet composer and drawing software. Interestingly, its predecessor OpenOffice could save files into the industry-norm PDF format long before its commercial rivals. Although some developers may seek a fee or ask for a donation from the user, the majority of Ubuntu’s most useful software is totally free of charge. Ubuntu instinctively seeks permission every time a change is made to the system. This means that the threat posed to computers by viruses and spying software is diminished considerably, as is the need for costly security software.
Windows users have all experienced a time when a presentation or lesson had to be postponed while their computer suspended itself to install updates. Updates like these take place practically unknown to the user in the background of Ubuntu, preventing inconvenience and embarrassment. Without any technical expertise, I have been able to fix computer problems with a few simple keystrokes. This is a departure from the costly professional reboots my family’s main computer has needed in the past. Enthusiasts around the world can be found online and many have compiled comprehensive series of instructional videos for various distributions of Linux.
I must admit that I have not yet mastered coding. The user interface is clear and unintimidating but most functions can also be achieved using code and I can appreciate its potential as a time saving practice. It is also an invaluable skill for the workplace; as the media landscape becomes increasingly converged, server breakdowns remain an inopportune fact of life.
Canonical, founded by 40-year-old Mark Shuttleworth, is the company behind Ubuntu and its derivatives. In 2002, Shuttleworth funded his own journey as the first South African in space. Reputable manufacturers including Acer, Lenovo and Hewlett Packard are now collaborating with Canonical to offer sturdy machines with Ubuntu pre-installed, which can reduce the purchase price of high quality computers. This will also make Ubuntu available for the first time to people who lack the enthusiasm (or the bravery) to renovate their computers through do-it-yourself.
Work practices often dictate that the same operating system must be used throughout a large organisation. This is gradually changing now that the bulk of tasks can be completed over the internet from a web browser or portable device, which has eliminated the need to purchase licences and install software permanently. Furthermore, Linux-based operating systems tend to work harmoniously with the likes of Windows and Macintosh, even when more than one standard runs on the same computer. It is surprisingly simple to open files prepared using other operating systems, despite my initial fears that they might clash.
Dual Boot is a concept beloved by Linux users. It allows for the use of more than one operating system and a partition in the storage space on a computer. This means that anyone curious about Linux may begin to experiment with the software without overhauling Windows or another operating system altogether. It is possible at a later date to switch to Linux completely or to remove it from the computer. Windows 7 is still available on my computer but I very rarely have the need to use it. Of course, having paid for Windows, I see no harm in retaining it as a safety net.
Many organisations around the world have embraced the open source model. France’s civil police la Gendarmerie Nationale has dropped its commitments to software companies entirely and recently completed a transition to using open source software exclusively. The force’s computing costs have already decreased by over 40%.
Canonical now also has aspirations to introduce Ubuntu for handheld devices such as mobile phones and tablet computers. Albeit aimed mainly at the developing world for the time being, it seems that the prevalence of open source will only increase in the coming years. Recent revelations of intrusive surveillance and security breaches have dented public trust in large technology companies.
Economically awkward times are also prompting people to look beyond materialism and brands in favour of practical, reliable and durable equipment. Users are having to reconsider their expenditure on basic computer essentials like office suites and antivirus software packages.