I have lost count of the many seminars, conferences and talks I've attended recently where that magic phrase "the-open-source-operating-system-Linux" has resounded. Whether uttered by a New Labour policy wonk or a Polish art historian it has the same effect: the crowd of academics, bloggers and civil servants goes gooey, basking smugly in the image of thousands of bearded geeks quietly subverting the capitalist beast from the comfort of their bedrooms, chewing caffeine gum and trotting out code that rivals Microsoft's.
But it's a bit more complicated than that. Linux comes in all kinds of different flavours, called distributions or "distros", and with each distro the code-base, licensing terms, support model, philosophy and community or company organisation varies. Understand these differences, and the utopian prism through which the average non-geek views open source software shifts.
"You know when ubuntu is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream
Most non-programmers only talk about Linux, they don't run it. Scanning any of these pseudo-tech conferences, I'll find most delegates are liveblogging on Apple Mac laptops, the nice guy alternative to Microsoft. But this non-programmer did run Linux, thanks in large part to my wonderful, if slightly militant, live-in system administrator. Not only did I run Linux, I ran the Debian distribution of Linux a distro so pure in the eyes of most geeks, I attracted admiration from all who knew.
Debian is a community-based distro, and of all Linux distributions, conforms most to the idealist stereotype of Linux. Debian holds elections for project leaders and its code is generally considered to be the most reliable, secure code available. But Debian made me cry. Away from the admiring glances of my fellow tech-commentators, if my live-in system admin had gone out for the evening and I wanted to install a printer, listen to online radio, or upload holiday photos, you would more often than not find me a good forty-five minutes later, staring blankly at the screen with watery eyes, or languishing in a puddle of my own ineptitude playing solitaire (which is much, much better on Linux).
Technology is no good if people can't use it. And by people I don't just mean me (please, reader, dry your eyes for my techno-foolishness). I mean those in the developing world, priced out of running the latest Microsoft or Apple software. Linux offers a real opportunity for developing nations not only because it is free to own but also because it can run on hardware that the developed world would otherwise send to landfills. But if you need a degree in computer science to use it, then barriers to access are just as real.
Enter Ubuntu Linux. Founded in 2004 by South African Mark Shuttleworth, its goal is "Linux for human beings" a usable Linux for desktop computing by non-geeks. Ubuntu is a traditional African concept describing the humanising quality of people's relationships with one another "I am because we are" which fits very nicely with concepts of sharing and open source. The Ubuntu distribution is based largely on Debian code, but with a strong focus on usability, and with predictable support and release patterns. And it works Ubuntu has been the most popular distro of Linux since 2005, and since I made the switch last year those tearful evenings in front of the computer screen have become a distant memory.
Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.
For more articles by Becky Hogge on technology, the internet and democracy visit her openDemocracy column "Virtual reality"
Shuttleworth, the self-styled "first African in space" and an early dotcom boomer, ploughed profits from the 1999 sale of his website security firm VeriSign into the Shuttleworth Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports education and social innovation in Africa. The Shuttleworth Foundation has funded some excellent projects most notably the freedom toaster, a free vending-machine of open source software and other digital material. The freedom toaster solves another perennial problem associated with open source software in the developing world: most open source applications need to be downloaded from the internet. This is bad news for anybody without access to a fast broadband connection (which includes most of Africa). But all the freedom toaster requires is an electrical socket for it happily to churn out custom-made CDs of Linux distros, open source applications and Wikipedia collections.
The newest mission for the Shuttleworth Foundation is to design a ten-year curriculum in computer programming to be used in South African schools, and it has attracted some big guns in coding. Rumour has it that Guido Van Rossum, project leader, or as the geeks would have it, "benevolent dictator for life" on object-orientated programming language Python, is hoping to work with Alan Kay, a founding thinker behind object-orientated programming (which proponents claim is easier to pick up for coding newbies) and co-developer of the hundred-dollar laptop, on an educational programming environment to contribute to the mission.
But Ubuntu itself isn't part of the Shuttleworth foundation it's supported by Canonical Ltd, a for-profit company owned by Shuttleworth. Unlike Debian, which is run by a fairly democratically organised community, Ubuntu programmers are often hired and paid by Shuttleworth. And on 1 June, Ubuntu will release its first "enterprise" distro Ubuntu Dapper Drake. The enterprise edition will come with longer support terms, which will make it attractive to corporations. Indeed Sun Microsystems, who made a reputation out of belittling Linux in favour of their Unix-based operating system Solaris were making very positive noises about working with Ubuntu at a recent conference in San Francisco.
So maybe Ubuntu wasn't such an altruistic endeavour after all. But is the fact Shuttleworth might make a profit bad news for the thousands of people downloading the desktop version every day? It's hard to say. Ubuntu could quite easily stay true to its first goal of Linux for human beings, providing usable free software for non-geeks in the developing and developed world while also making a tidy profit from support contracts with commercial companies on the side. On the face of it, this looks like the perfect social enterprise. To achieve it, however, Shuttleworth will have to keep the Debian community on side, since beyond the usability question they still provide most of the code behind the Ubuntu distro.
Without Shuttleworth's entrepreneurial flair, would such a popular, usable version of Linux have been possible? We'll never know, but it is fair to say that the Debian community weren't known for their interest in the capabilities of those less technically-literate than them. Whatever happens to Ubuntu, it is clear that there is a lot more to that "open-source-operating-system-Linux" than first meets the eye.
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