When I first heard of it in 2007, Ubuntu was billed as "Linux for human beings;" a more comprehensible version of the Linux operating system than those available from, say, Red Hat.
Today, the Ubuntu home page doesn't mention Linux anywhere. What it does talk about are how it has "no clutter" and "thousands of free apps," and that it's "compatible with all your devices." And its new look and feel "borrowed consciously" from Windows and Mac OS X, according to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.
What that means is that the latest version of Ubuntu, called "Natty Narwhal," isn't just for techies. It's for anyone who wants to download and try it, whether they're on a Windows PC or a Mac, because it works like Windows and Mac OS X. But it also has its own advantages, like immunity to Windows malware and viruses.
Here's what Ubuntu borrowed from each of its competitors:
If you're familiar with Microsoft Windows, you'll immediately recognize the taskbar on the left-hand side of the screen. It's a lot like the one in Windows 7, with large, friendly square icons. The Ubuntu logo in the upper-left corner works like the Start button, and lets you play music, go on the Internet, check your email and find new apps. You can also click it and start typing to search for anything.
New apps appear on the taskbar as they are launched, and you can right-click on any of them to pin them to it. You can also click-and-drag to rearrange them, and if you start dragging a picture or a block of text that you've selected, the apps that you can paste it into will light up.
Mac OS X
Like everyone else these days, the creators of Ubuntu made a conscious effort to imitate Apple's aesthetic. With Ubuntu, however, they did a good job.
Ubuntu puts the menu bar for each window at the top of the screen, like on a Mac. It also has many of a Mac's design touches, like tasteful, monochrome system tray icons, plus a unified look and feel to most of its apps. The overall feel of Ubuntu is seamless and elegant, uncluttered and distraction-free, and it's a breath of fresh air to anyone who's tired of Windows' pop-ups and updates.
Other features that Ubuntu copied from Mac OS X include its Spaces feature, which lets you sort open windows into four different "workspaces." But one feature that Mac OS X actually cribbed from Ubuntu is the concept of an App Store, which on Ubuntu is called the "Software Centre." Ubuntu has had such a feature for years, before the iPhone was even invented. It has both free and paid apps, including popular apps like Skype and Firefox, and it even has an iPhoto-style app called Shotwell.
Try it yourself
If you want to try Ubuntu yourself, just go to ubuntu.com/download and grab it for free. It can install inside Windows, just like any other program, or load in Boot Camp on a Mac. All you need is a blank CD to burn it to.
I've been using Ubuntu on my computer for years now, along with Microsoft Windows. Of the two, I definitely prefer Ubuntu ... and after using a Mac for a couple of months, I have to say that Ubuntu is almost as classy.
For its price, you can't beat it!
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.