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Web Log - Ubuntu

Ding Dong, Dell

By Andrew Price, 2007-05-02 04:50:19 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

So, Ubuntu being chosen by Dell as the Linux distro to ship on some of its machines is old news now, but what does it mean for the future? I've had some thoughts about the advantages it could have in the bigger picture but for it to pan out that way there are some caveats which I'll explain later.

The first advantage might be the effect of inspiring other large PC retailers to offer some flavour of Linux with their machines. This would be a big advantage to us consumers as prices might become more competitive as companies vie for customer favour in that market. You might start to see Christmas time bargain commercials with shiny new computers flying across the screen with the Ubuntu logo clearly in the corner of the desktop on daytime television.

It could also be a poke in the ribs for hardware vendors. If large PC retailers start to find that buying hardware which has good Linux support or open specifications/drivers is advantageous to their business models, more hardware vendors might wake up and open source their own specifications and drivers in order to attract those companies to their product lines. Dell might even see fit to fight in the corner of open source software and lobby hardware vendors to go open source just because, say, Michael Dell agrees with the free software philosophy (whether he does or not, I don't know).

Organisations with existing Dell contracts might benefit. I'm not entirely sure how these things work, but here's an example based in reality. My university seems to be keen on Dell PCs and I'm guessing that to buy that many machines they would need to work out a big contract deal with Dell which I'm also guessing would have some kind of time frame attached to it. If the university had to choose from the range of Dell products, and they came across Ubuntu, or maybe even an Edubuntu option for academic organisations (wink), they might recognise the added benefits of using open source software solutions in their networks and opt for that instead. I'm sure my university would prefer an operating system which didn't propagate worms, viruses and other malware throughout its network. Who wouldn't?

The one effect I'm sure about is that the news will raise the profile of Ubuntu and Linux as a feasible alternative to Windows. People browsing Dell's product range will see Ubuntu as an operating system option (maybe even a lower price tag, we'll see) and look into what advantages it would hold for them (free upgrades forever, etc.) and compare it to Windows before they've tried it. It'll help to put "Ubuntu" into the vocabulary of a wider audience and for people who tried Linux back in the 20th century and gave up on it because it wasn't user-friendly enough, it'll help to update their perceptions of Linux.

Of course, I did say there were a few caveats and here they are. In order for the Dell news to have these desired network effects, the whole industry would need to sit back and watch how Dell's business is doing in relation to it. Back in 1999, Dell tried to market Linux as a desktop solution but then decided there wasn't enough demand to carry on. This time, I feel success for Dell's Linux desktop range is more likely but as a realist I'm not entirely convinced. Microsoft has a large amount of people locked into its software and that lock-in is very strong. I think, in the Average Jill's mind, the switch to Linux will need to be sparked off by something greater than a few dollars difference in PC prices. They'll need to take a leap into the virtually-unknown after all. I hope Dell will market their new offering enthusiastically and wisely and in doing so help to carry over the whole feeling behind using Ubuntu and other open source solutions.

My prediction about the hardware vendors taking notice is highly optimistic. Ever since I tried to get an old PC's modem working with Linux back around 2000 I've known about the stubbornness of hardware vendors and their bad habit of keeping their driver code buried as if it was a bloody dagger with their fingerprints all over it. It takes a very courageous CEO of a hardware company to push the decision to go open source (or open specification), and I applaud any that do. I doubt the recent news will directly push any hardware companies into going open but it'd be a nice surprise if it did. As Mark Shuttleworth mentioned on the video interview about Ubuntu and Dell, when Linux became a bigger player in the server market, the hardware vendors took note and decided to start becoming more Linux friendly in the context of that market. I hope they'll do the same for the desktop market.

It's a hard one to predict, but this could certainly turn out to be a big turning point in the life of open source software and I'm excited about the future. I hope as many people who told Dell that they'd buy a PC with Linux pre-installed go out and buy one, to keep our end of the deal.

Pushing For The Forest Canopy

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-13 20:39:16 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

I've just been reading an article on linux.com about Debian. It's mainly about how Debian is going to reinvent itself to be more desktop friendly etc. which is great, but I found it a bit worrying that it contains pessimistic statements like "as Debian developers and users have deserted the distro for Ubuntu, does Debian have a purpose any more?" and "Rumors of Debian's decline or irrelevance have been circulating for some time." In reality, I believe Debian has nothing to worry about and will continue to go from strength to strength.

The article seems to imply that Ubuntu and Debian are in a win-or-lose competition against each other in the Linux distro market. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ubuntu is based on Debian and depends on all the great hard work and openness of the Debian community, just as Ubuntu derivatives depend on those qualities of Ubuntu.

The article paints the relationship as two trees in a forest, struggling to grow above one another to get all the available sunlight and blocking out the other. The real picture is more of a single, young tree, with upstream FOSS developers as the roots that keep the whole thing alive, Debian as the wide trunk and Ubuntu et. al. as its branches and sub-branches. The contributors to Ubuntu and its derivatives would be the leaves, feeding energy and new ideas back into the whole system and, to complete the analogy, our users would be the sunlight, oxygen and water that we all need to keep growing.

It may be seem like an excessively romantic way of looking at the situation, but I like that. It's the passionate and neighbourly atmosphere surrounding the free and open source software community that keeps me involved and wanting to contribute to it (plus I get to help to improve the software that I and my friends and family use every day). I believe that many others contribute for the same reasons.

My first notable contributions to FOSS were for Ubuntu. I then took over maintaining a project and, once I felt it was ready, I packaged it for Debian rather than Ubuntu, because I felt that it was best to feed another root directly into the trunk of the tree so that the whole tree could benefit. From packaging to sponsored upload (thanks Nico) took less than a day and thanks to the well documented nature of Debian's processes I found it quite straightforward.

The Ubuntu community is different from the Debian community in lots ways but members of both are all good people for contributing to this quickly growing young tree of ours and I'm happy to say that I'm part of both of the communities, part of the whole tree. Debian may not be the best distribution on offer for the new user, fresh from a half life of Windows usage, but it has a lot of good things going for it. It has a very important part to play in the big picture and deserves a lot of respect for being the strong trunk that gives birth to branches like Ubuntu and allows them to grow from it.

Debian may have its problems here and there but as long as it still has that sense of passion and community flowing through its xylem, its branches will eventually push through the forest canopy and tower over other trees in the forest.

Rejoining The MOTU Fun

By Andrew Price, 2007-03-30 09:14:41 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

Thanks to the absence of lectures since last Friday I've had the chance to properly get back into my FOSS saddle. I've mostly been helping out the Ubuntu MOTU folks who are an awesome bunch of people that, as a team, keeps the Universe and Multiverse software repositories stocked with an insane amount of applications, tools, games, libraries, documentation and other cool packages and keep it as bug free as they possibly can.

There is a lot to do and anyone who wants to can jump right in. There's a huge amount of documentation on the Ubuntu wiki and lots of friendly people on IRC to ask when you get stuck. To get started, I would suggest joining irc.freenode.net and hanging out on #ubuntu-bugs to see all the new bugs being announced and also join #ubuntu-motu where the real action takes place ;) The magic words are "How do I get started fixing bugs?".

You'll probably be pointed at a few handy wiki pages to read but after a bit of learning you'll be able to pick a bug from the list of easy ones (tagged bitesize) and have a go at fixing it. At first, you might find that some of the bugs are a bit confusing or you don't know how to start fixing them. Don't worry if that happens, you can always ask what to do, pick an easier bug to work on, or use it just to practice your bug fixing and packaging skills. I've downloaded source packages only to find that I couldn't fix the bug myself but I learnt a lot from trying. That's the part that I find the most fun.

How To Improve Conversation At A Comp Sci Open Day

By Andrew Price, 2007-02-08 10:02:52 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

Yesterday I helped out at a Computer Science department open day at uni. It was my job to talk to prospective new students and their parents to make them feel at home and answer any questions they might have about the university and being a Comp Sci student here.

At lunch, I was sat at the end of a table, a lecturer and a research student at the opposite end, an enthusiastic kid to my left and to my right, a quiet kid and his father. The conversation made its way onto what I did in my spare time and I mentioned open source software and Ubuntu. The father to the right of me's eyes lit up and he said he was trying out Ubuntu at home and then went on to ask for my help getting his Windows machine to be able to see a samba share on his Ubuntu box. Although I had configured samba before, I couldn't remember the exact syntax so I pointed him towards the Ubuntu wiki (which usually has these kinds of helpful things on it) and I also mentioned the other ways he could get some information about it - the Ubuntu forums, mailing lists, IRC, and failing that, just Googling.

The conversation carried on and the kid to my left asked what Linux is. I explained how Linux is an OS kernel and that other programs are bundled with it to make Linux OS distributions such as Ubuntu and other things. He seemed quite interested and took it all in. It had been a quiet open day before that and I was rather pleased at how much the conversation picked up after mentioning Linux.

The thing that struck me the most was that at one table there was such a contrast between the prospective student who had no idea about what Linux is and the father on the other side of the table who was working on getting a samba server set up on Ubuntu. I think the lecturer and research assistant on the other side of the table were just glad that I was talking about something so they could enjoy their free lunch uninterrupted.

Andy += Ubuntu Membership

By Andrew Price, 2006-09-06 12:21:45 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

It's my birthday soon and what a great birthday gift I have been awarded - Ubuntu membership. I'd like to thank all the people who came to the Community Council meeting and put in a good word for me. I'll try not to let it go to my head.

Now if you'll excuse me I have bugs to triage and packages to wrestle with :)

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