Anthony Doesburg: Little Ubuntu chipping away at mighty Microsoft

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If the battle between computer operating systems was won or lost on the basis of which has the cutest name, Ubuntu would surely reign supreme.

Ubuntu is a version of Linux, the open-source OS that is chipping away at Microsoft's domination of the software market.

Chipping delicately, it has to be said. According to market analyst IDC, Microsoft's various Windows versions have more than 95 per cent of the market for desktop and laptop PCs, followed by a resurgent Mac OS with about 2.5 per cent, then Linux, which also has many flavours, with about 1 per cent.

But those rankings are based on sales - the amount of cash paid for each OS. Since Linux is generally free, its share of the market is therefore under-reported.

But back to the name game. Ubuntu is an African word without an exact English translation that conveys the idea of common humanity, of oneness.

Its appropriation by a Linux software distributor might appear a little unseemly but the person responsible can lay good claim to it. He is Mark Shuttleworth, a South African based in London who began the Ubuntu project (its slogan is "Linux for human beings") three years ago.

Shuttleworth and his company Canonical aim to make Linux available to mainstream computer users. In the face of Microsoft's hold on the market, which ensures that most PCs sold throughout the world have Windows pre-installed, it's an uphill battle.

But Canonical is making progress. It has come to an arrangement with PC maker Dell for Ubuntu to be offered as an option on some desktop and laptop computers. Initially, it just applied to machines sold in the United States but, since August, Dell customers in Britain and Europe have also been able to get Ubuntu. It comes with about a $65 discount over PCs with Windows.

Canonical is keen to strike a similar deal for a version of the software to run on server PCs, the machines that do the backroom work in many organisations.

Linux proponents have been trying to turn computer users on to the free operating system for years but Microsoft's advantage is Windows' support of a wider range of peripheral devices - the printers, DVD drives, webcams and numerous other accessories that computer users rely on.

Linux also lacks the range of software Windows enjoys, although there are free versions of many commonly used applications, such as OpenOffice, a near-equivalent of Microsoft Office.

Nor can Linux users count on the same readily-available help if things go wrong with their computer as Windows users can. Of course, the Linux camp responds that less does go wrong with a PC running Ubuntu or one of the many other OS versions. Shuttleworth maintains that Ubuntu is making progress on all those fronts. "I don't think there is going to be a big-bang event when the world suddenly shifts from one [computer] platform to another but I do think Linux is coming into its own as a viable, reliable desktop platform," he says in an interview on the Dell website.

Don Christie, a director of Wellington software company Catalyst IT and president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, says his expectation of a computer operating system is that it should "just work out of the box" and that's his experience of Ubuntu, which is widely used throughout his company.

Christie says small businesses that shy away from Linux are missing out on significant software licensing cost savings. Microsoft might argue that the price of software is just 10 per cent of a computer's cost, but Christie says for small outfits whose lifeblood is their cash flow, that's far from trivial.

Shuttleworth's Linux advocacy involves more commitment than the usual open-source cheerleading.

He personally finances Canonical and can afford to, having sold his internet security company, Thawte, for US$565 million ($740 million) in 1999.

With some of the money he went into space, hitching a ride with a Russian mission to the International Space Station. He has also flown as far as Dunedin, in January last year, for an Australasian Linux conference, also attended by Christie.

"One of the things about him is he fully understands the open-source model because he built a billion-dollar business around it," Christie says. That model relies on the input of a volunteer community of software developers.

In Ubuntu's case, input is invited not only on the software but in the naming of successive versions.

It's common for software to be given a code name while still in development: Vista, the current version of Windows, was for years referred to as Longhorn; its predecessor, XP, was known as Whistler.

For cuteness, though, Ubuntu is miles ahead. The present release is called Feisty Fawn; the next release is Gutsy Gibbon. Hardy Heron is already in the works and suggestions for the release after that include Itchy Iguana. Beat that, Microsoft.

* Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist

Opening up

* Ubuntu is a version of the Linux computer operating system.

* The market for operating systems is still dominated by Microsoft's Windows.

* However, Ubuntu is now an option on some Dell computers.

* The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, is keen to see it used on server computers.

* Canonical is financed by South African IT multi-millionaire Mark Shuttleworth.

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