Everyone has heard of Microsoft Windows, and most have head of the Apple OS X, and an even smaller number have heard of Linux (which is actually a group of independent operating system “builds” distributed under different names). Of those, one of the most popular is the version based on a Debian build, Ubuntu. But very few people have any idea that Ubuntu is a major competitor for some of the Microsoft Windows market share.

Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through its low, low price: $0.More than 10 million people are estimated to run Ubuntu today, and they represent a threat to Microsoft’s hegemony in developed countries and perhaps even more so in those regions catching up to the technology revolution.

“I think Ubuntu has captured people’s imaginations around the Linux desktop,” said Chris DiBona, the program manager for open-source software at Google. “If there is a hope for the Linux desktop, it would be them.”  A large portion of Google’s 20,000 employees use a modified version of Ubuntu, playfully called Goobuntu. Additionally, Dell started to sell PCs and desktops with the software in 2007, and
IBM more recently began making Ubuntu the basis of a software package.

People encountering Ubuntu for the first time will find it very similar to Windows. It uses an easy to understand graphical interface, familiar menus and all the common desktop software: a Web browser (firefox), an e-mail program, instant-messaging software and the OpenOffice.org suite of productivity software, which rivals MS office in functionality, and is available for use, free of charge.

Microsoft had an estimated 10,000 people working on Vista, its newest desktop operating system, for five years. The result of this multibillion-dollar investment has been a product late to market and widely panned. Canonical, meanwhile, releases a fresh version of Ubuntu every six months, adding features that capitalize on the latest advances from developers and component makers like Intel.

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