If there is any one word that could sum up Ubuntu, it would be Community. Even the definition of the word "Ubuntu" makes reference to community, and how the betterment of the individual and community are interconnected. Nearly everyone I've met through Ubuntu in the last five years cites the community as the single major reason for their use. In many aspects, Ubuntu is technically equal to its competitors, but nowhere else will you find the same level of community support. Nowhere else will you find the same level of friendship and positive atmosphere.
Over the last five years I have tested many alternate Linux distributions and I have yet to find any other community that is as accepting, or that goes out of their way to invite you into the group. The Ubuntu community has so many people actively engaged in trying to provide a positive environment, it is truly amazing. If you find yourself at an Ubuntu event, don't be surprised if you actually see hugs! And watch out, it is contagious!
The source of this positive community atmosphere is the guidance of the Ubuntu Code of Conduct. From the beginning, Ubuntu has had a Code of Conduct, and active contributing community members are expected to understand and sign the document. By outlining in clear terms what is expected of a community member, and keeping it forefront in members minds, Ubuntu is able to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect. This one simple document is what sets Ubuntu apart from every other online community. Sure you can find a community of contributors to any project, but nowhere else will you find the same respect and welcoming atmosphere that you'll find in Ubuntu.
Ubuntu introduced a level of simplicity to the Linux environment that hasn't been seen before. What has historically been a hobbyist operating system has been tuned and refined to the point that truly anyone can install and use it. Before Ubuntu, a user would need to be familiar with partitioning and package selections (at minimum!) in order to install a machine. With Ubuntu a machine can be installed with a very sane set of default tools without any technical decision making from the user. With tools such as Wubi, now included on Ubuntu installation disks, a user is able to install Ubuntu alongside an existing Windows installation and have the two peacefully coexist. Giving the user the ability to try-before-you-buy, and leave current installations and data intact have also drastically improved the userbase and adoption rate.
Ubuntu was also the first to promote a single CD installation. Where most other Linux distributions were offering DVD based installations, Ubuntu packaged a core selection onto a single CD and offered those for download. They even offered to send free CDs through the mail to anyone that requested them! It doesn't get much simpler than than!
The truly amazing thing about this simplicity is that, despite being limited to a single 700MB CD, Ubuntu comes with a plethora of software. The base installation provides a comprehensive desktop environment, including a full office suite, web browser, mail client, audio and video tools and more! This emphasis on delivering a highly refined, usable environment from the start is a very important aspect of Ubuntu.
Short, Scheduled Releases
Ubuntu showed that it was possible to release a new version every six months, and has consistently done so for the past five years. When we say that we are celebrating Ubuntu's fifth anniversary we should also remember that it has had eleven releases in that time! Eleven releases, ten of which were right on schedule, in a five-year period. That is amazing!
Other distributions have started to do the same, and even that has unified the Linux market. Where other operating systems might take years between releases, Ubuntu has shown that six month incremental releases are possible and popular. This release schedule allows them to leverage the user community for testing and fixes, by allowing them to run the latest and greatest software soon after it is released. This follows Linus Torvalds' comment of "release early, release often".
Outside of its six-month cycle Ubuntu also offers a two-year cycle, which focuses on long-term stability and proven software. For those users that aren't interested in the latest tools and applications, Ubuntu offers the Long Term Support (LTS) releases. These releases equate to every fourth incremental release. This system has shown that it works and I think it will continue to work well. The next Ubuntu release, Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" will provide the next LTS release, which will be supported for three years on the desktop and five years on the server.
Teams for Everything!
In order to leverage the vast community of users, Ubuntu has organized teams for just about everything you can think of! If you want to contribute to a project, in any aspect of Ubuntu, there is a team for that. There are instructions on how to join the team, who to talk to, and where you can contribute. There are even teams to help people find teams! By lowering the bar for participation, and actively encouraging and helping new users become contributors, Ubuntu has significantly improved their contributing user base. Even those that don't have any previous technical programming or engineering experience are welcome to contribute right away.
For a long time I was the leader of one of these teams, and my main goal was to make certain that anyone who wanted a task had a task. Anyone that wanted to contribute was welcome, encouraged, and even guided to positive contribution to the group. Again, this follows the definition of Ubuntu that the betterment of the many depends on the one, and visa versa.
Pushing the envelope
There are a number of technical things that Ubuntu did first, and they have taken some flak for them, but if your goal is to be a technical leader in an industry you can't be afraid to take some heat. Ubuntu has pushed the envelope in many areas, some of them I have mentioned above. Some of the areas they are currently or have recently pushed is in regard to mobile devices and netbooks. Ubuntu was the first major distribution to be offered, pre-installed, on OEM hardware. This included standard notebooks as well as the more recent netbook mini laptops. They created the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which is a custom interface for smaller displays, and have also more recently partnered with Intel to work on the Moblin Remix. No other linux distribution is doing as much, as fast, in the mobile market than Ubuntu.
Ubuntu is also currently pushing the envelope in regard to boot-times. The goal for the next release (Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx", LTS) has the goal of a 10 second boot time. This is something that other major vendors are pushing for, and I won't be surprised at all if Ubuntu makes it, and makes it first.
Ubuntu wants to be known not only as the most friendly distribution but also the most technically advanced. Always adding the latest technologies, and questioning the old paradigms, Ubuntu will continue to be head and shoulders above the rest.
How to get involved
If you'd like to get involved with Ubuntu there are plenty of ways to do so, and you don't need much technical background either. In most cases, all you need is time! The first thing that I would suggest checking out is the upcoming Ubuntu Open Week. This event is held just a week or two after each new Ubuntu release, and it allows developers and project contributors to discuss what they are planning for the next version, just a few short months away. Many times these discussions offer opportunities for contribution in different areas. The question and answer section is a great time to find out if the project needs any help. I have found that even if the project only needs help with documentation it is a great way to start contributing to a project. Even something that sounds like it could be boring, such as documentation, can be a great learning experience and offer inroads into other aspects of the project. It isn't unheard of for documenters to find bugs and smooth out a lot of the rough edges of a project.
This years Ubunu Open Week took place Monday November 2nd through Friday November 6th on IRC in #ubuntu-classroom and #ubuntu-classroom-chat. If you've never experienced an Ubuntu Open Week I'd invite you to check it out next time. There is a lot to be learned, many great people to meet, and exciting projects to get involved with!
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