The human touch

A user-friendly version of Linux renders Microsoft obsolete.

Back in January, when Microsoft launched its first new operating system in five years, I vowed that, due to the anti-user content controls hard-baked into MS Vista, I would never upgrade to it. Over these past few months, that vow has been put to the test.

Due to a freak air-conditioning accident in Argentina at the beginning of the summer, my laptop has gone to that great data warehouse in the sky. An IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP, it was a joy to use, and although we were together only a year, it had travelled everywhere with me, the stickers with which I'd adorned it at various international conferences revealing more about my journeys than my passport.

Since that fateful day in Buenos Aires, I have been borrowing a laptop that runs a version of the free and open-source operating system Linux. The operating system is called Ubuntu, after a traditional southern African concept describing the humanising quality of people's relationships with one another - "I am because we are". All of which fits very nicely with concepts of sharing and open source. But what's really important about Ubuntu is its tagline: "Linux for human beings".

Although Linux runs on a significant proportion of the machines that power the web, it is mostly only programmers who run it on their everyday computers. But Ubuntu purports to aim at a different market - those who, like me, use their computers for email, digital photos, web-browsing and word processing. And my Summer of Ubuntu has proved to me that it can handle all these tasks fabulously. The interface is intuitive, and unlike other Linux distributions I've used in the past, stuff like cameras, USB sticks and printers are recognised instantly and put to use. In most cases, connecting to wifi networks is as easy as it was with XP.

Of course, one of the best things about Linux is that it doesn't cost anything. So when it came to building an office network for my poorly funded non-profit organisation, Ubuntu was the obvious choice. We had been donated computers that would have otherwise gone to scrap: within days, one of our more tech-minded volunteers had an entire network up and running for almost nothing.

A while ago, an apocryphal story about Ubuntu was doing the rounds online. A guy was asked to buy the latest version of Windows and instal it on his father's machine. The enterprising geek pocketed the cash and installed Ubuntu instead, only to receive a call from his dad a week later to say how great the new "Vista" was.

So when the insurance for my old laptop finally comes through, I know which way I'm going. Very few models ship with Ubuntu installed. But although I've got more than enough geeks on hand to help me instal the system I want, my Summer of Ubuntu has given me the confidence to do it myself.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?