It's Free - Gratis

When doing the initial research for this article, one of my goals was to try to identify all of the reasons why I would want to use Ubuntu. While there are many reasons, a lot of them are what amount to edge cases. At the risk of being accused of shortchanging Ubuntu here, after using Ubuntu for quite some time the main reasons came down to this: It's free, and it's secure. That's it. Many of the popular Linux applications can be found for Windows, non-gaming performance largely isn't a concern on a high-end desktop such as mine, and no one is making any serious claims about ease of use when compared to Mac OS X. Ubuntu is free and Ubuntu is secure, but that's about it.

We'll start with “free”, since that's one of the fundamental subjects. When we say Ubuntu is free, there are two elements to that. The first is that Ubuntu costs nothing; it is free (gratis). The second is that Ubuntu's source code is open and can be modified by anyone; it is free (libre). This is expressed in the popular and simplified slogans of “free as in beer” and “free as in speech.” Many software products are freeware (e.g. Futuremark's PCMark) but fewer products are open source. The former does not necessitate the latter or vice versa, although practical considerations mean that most open source software is also freeware in some fashion since you can't keep people from compiling the source code for themselves.

There's fairly little to explain with respect to Ubuntu being freeware. It can be downloaded directly from the Ubuntu website in the form of an ISO disc image, and copied, installed, wiped as many times as anyone would like. Ubuntu's corporate sponsor/developer Canonical also sells it for a nominal price (currently it's listed on Amazon for $12) but there is no difference between the retail version and the download version. It's a free operating system, and free is a very good price.

Being free does mean giving up some things that would normally come with purchased software. Official support is the first element, as since it's a free OS there is no one being paid to support users. We'll dive into support in-depth in a bit, but for now it's enough to remember that Ubuntu does not come with official support. Support options are limited to the Ubuntu Knowledge Base, the forums, and whatever additional help can be found on the internet.

There's more to being able to offer Ubuntu for free than just not offering official support. Incidental expenses of assembling and distributing Ubuntu are covered by Canonical, who expects to eventually make a profit from Ubuntu through selling enterprise support. Development of Ubuntu and the underlying Linux components are done by a variety of volunteers working in their spare time, and paid employees from companies such as Novell, IBM, Red Hat, and others who use Linux in their commercial products and have a vested interest in its development.

However - and this is where we're going to take a bit of a detour - there is also the matter of who is not paid because Ubuntu is free. The United States patent system allows for ideas and methods to be patented, along with the more typical physical devices. What this means is that everything from encryption methods to video codecs to file systems can be and are patented by a variety of companies. As a result a lot of technologies in common use are patented, and those patents must be licensed for use when it comes to the United States (and many other countries with similar patent systems). Ubuntu includes software that uses patented material, but since Ubuntu is free, no one is paying those license fees.

Now I want to be very clear here that the reason I bring this up is because it's interesting, not because it's a problem. The chief example of where patents are an issue is media playback. MP3, MPEG-2, H.264, AAC, and other common formats have paid license requirements. This directly rears its head for the user when you first fire up Ubuntu's movie player and attempt to play a movie using a patented codec. Ubuntu goes through great lengths to point out that it needs to use a patented codec to play the material, and that unless the user has a valid license for the codecs it may be a patent violation to play the material, ultimately giving the user the option to download what Ubuntu calls the “restricted” codec set that is not distributed for legal reasons.

With that said, the legal issues are entirely theoretical for the end user. While using the restricted codecs is technically a patent violation, to our knowledge no individual has ever been sued or otherwise harassed over this, and we don't expect that to ever change. The licensing bodies like MPEG-LA are concerned with commercial products using their property – if someone is making money from their property, they want a piece of it. They are not concerned with home use of their codecs, and quite frankly users have nothing to be concerned about.

It should also be noted that Ubuntu (and other Linux distros) are not alone in this. VLC, Media Player Classic, various Windows codec packs, and many other free media players are also technically in violation of patent law for the same reasons. Even if someone is a Windows user, there's still a good chance they're violating patent law. For all practical purposes it's very hard to avoid being an IP violator, no matter the platform.

Meanwhile for those that absolutely must stay on the right side of the law, there are options, but it's not pretty. Canonical sells licensed software packages that can play back most media formats; Cyberlink's PowerDVD Linux for DVD playback, and Fluendo Complete Playback Pack for everything else. However the price may be shocking: being legit is going to cost you $50 for PowerDVD and another $40 for Fluendo. This makes a small but notable difference from Windows and Mac OS X. It's hard but not impossible to be both free and legitimate on those platforms through legal software that is given away for free – Winamp, Quicktime, DivX, and Flip4Mac all fall under this umbrella. Again, this makes no practical difference – no one who's holding a patent cares – but it's something any Ubuntu user trying to playback media is going to have to pay attention to for a fleeting moment.

Ultimately, the important bits to take away from this are that Ubuntu is free as in beer, and for the price you're only giving up official support. There are some patent issues, but since no one on either side actually cares, it doesn't matter. If nothing else, Ubuntu will be the best-priced operating system you will ever use, and price matters.

Background It’s Free – Libre
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  • viciki123 - Monday, February 22, 2010 - link

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  • Jillian - Thursday, December 29, 2011 - link

    YOu are spamer .For this, you could pick up some popular open source and proprietary (or their free equivalents) application that can run both Linux and W7. and compare the price, time and power consumption for retrieving, saving, processing, compiling, encrypting,decrypting compacting, extracting, encoding, decoding, backup, restore, nº of frames,etc, with machines in a range of different CPU and memory capacities. http://www.idresses.co.uk Reply
  • zerobug - Monday, February 1, 2010 - link

    Regarding benchmarks and Linux-focused hardware roundups, one thing worth of consideration is that while Microsoft places strong resources on O/S development to create features that will require the end users the need to get the latest and greatest powerful hardware, Linux places their efforts in order that the end user will still be able to use their old hardware and get the best user experience while running the latest and greatest software.
    So,the benchmarks could compare the user experience when running popular software on Microsoft and Linux O/S's, with different powerful machines.
    For this, you could pick up some popular open source and proprietary (or their free equivalents) application that can run both Linux and W7. and compare the price, time and power consumption for retrieving, saving, processing, compiling, encrypting,decrypting compacting, extracting, encoding, decoding, backup, restore, nº of frames,etc, with machines in a range of different CPU and memory capacities.
    Reply
  • MarcusAsleep - Thursday, December 17, 2009 - link

    Quick Startup: OK, Windows is fast - at first, well let's say that is if you install it yourself without all the bloatware that come standard on Windows store-bought PS's (we bought a Toshiba laptop for work with Vista that took 12 minutes after boot-up for it to respond to a click on the start menu - even on the third time booting.)

    Windows startup is often burdened by auto-updates from Microsoft, anti-virus, Sun-Java, Acrobat Reader, etc. etc. that slow down the computer on boot-up to where your original idea of "hey I just want to start my computer and check my email for a minute before work" can take at least 5. I can do this reliably on Linux in 1. Yes, if you know a lot about Windows, you can stop all the auto-updates and maintain them yourself but 99% of Windows users don't have time/or know how to do this.

    Trouble-free: E.G. I installed Linux on a computer for my wife's parents (Mepis Linux) 7 years ago for email, pictures, games, web, letter use and haven't had to touch it since then. This is typical.

    For Windows, often I have done fresh installs on trojan/virus infected computers - installed working antivirus and all Windows Updates (not to mention this process takes about 2-4 hours of updates upon updates + downloads of the proper drives from the manufacturers websites vs about 1 hour for an Ubuntu install with all updates done including any extra work for codecs and graphic drivers) - only to have to come back a couple months later to a slow again computer from users installing adware, infected games, etc.

    Free: Nearly every Windows reinstall I've had to do starts with a computer loaded with MS Office, games, etc. but upon reinstall nobody has the disks for these. There is a lot of "sharing" of computer programs in the Windows world that is not very honest

    With Linux, you can have the operating system plus pretty much anything else you would need, without having to cheat.

    Adaptable Performance: You can get a well-performing Linux installation (LXDE Desktop) on a PIII computer with 256MB of ram. The only thing that will seem slow to an average mom/pop user would be surfing on flash loaded web pages, but with adblock on Firefox, it's not too bad. With Vista loaded on this computer, it would be annoyingly slow. You can often continue to use/re-use computer hardware with Linux for years after it would be unsuitable for Windows.

    I think these features are of high value to the average user -- maybe not the average Anandtech computer user -- but the average surf/email/do homework/look at photos/play solitaire/balance my checkbook user.

    Cheers!

    Mark.
    Reply
  • SwedishPenguin - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    Using SMB for network performance is extremely biased. It's a proprietary Microsoft protocol, of course Microsoft is going to win that one. Use NFS, HTTP, FTP, SSH or some other open protocol for network performance benchmarking. Alot of NASes do support these, as they are Linux-based.

    Furthermore, using a Windows server with SMB with the argument that most consumer NAS use SMB is pretty ridiculous, these NASes are most likely going to use Samba, not native SMB, the Samba which is implemented in GNU/Linux distributions and Mac OS X, not to mention that most of the NASes that I've seen offer at least one of these protocols as an alternative.
    Reply
  • SwedishPenguin - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    The ISO thing is pretty ridiculous, creating a simple GUI in both GTK and Qt and integrating them into Gnome and KDE should be pretty damn easy, though I suppose integration with the respective virtual file systems would be in order, in which case it might get slightly more complex for those (like me) not familiar with the code. There's even a FUSE (userspace filesystem) module now, so you wouldn't even need to be root to mount it.

    About the command-line support, IMO that's a good thing. It's a lot easier both for the person helping and the guy needing help to write/copy-paste a few commands than it is to tell the person to click that button, then that one then another one, etc. It's also alot easier for the guy needing help to simply paste the result if it didn't help, and it makes it much easier to diagnose the problem than if the user would attempt to describe the output. And you usually get much more useful information from the command-line utilities than you do from GUIs, the GUI simplifies the information so anyone can understand it, but at the price of making debugging a hell of a lot more difficult.
    Reply
  • nillbug - Wednesday, September 30, 2009 - link

    It must be said that Ubuntu and the major Linux distributors all have 64bit O/S versions since a long time. The reason behind is to allow users to benefit from memory (+4MB) and 64bit CPUs (almost all today) gaining a better computing experience.

    If this article was a private work of the author to provide him an answer on whether he may or may not move to Linux, people should advise him the above mentioned. As for an article intended to be read by thousands it must be pointed out that it's conclusion is a miss lead.

    In face of today's reality (and not the author reality) why did he never mentioned the 64bit Ubuntu systems? I guess he's final thoughts then would've been much more in favor of Linux.
    Reply
  • nillbug - Wednesday, September 30, 2009 - link

    It must be said that Ubuntu and the major Linux distributors all have 64bit O/S versions since a long time. The reason behind is to allow users to benefit from memory (+4MB) and 64bit CPUs (almost all today) gaining a better computing experience.

    If this article was a private work of the author to provide him an answer on whether he may or may not move to Linux, people should advise him the above mentioned. As for an article intended to be read by thousands it must be pointed out that it's conclusion is a miss lead.

    In face of today's reality (and not the author reality) why did he never mentioned the 64bit Ubuntu systems? I guess he's final thoughts then would've been much more in favor of Linux.
    Reply
  • seanlee - Tuesday, September 15, 2009 - link

    I have read all 17 pages of comments…a lot of Linux lovers out there… and they all purposely ignore few important things that make Windows successful, which in term, makes most Linux distribution marking failures, I have used Linux on my net book and my ps3, and I absolutely hate it.
    1. User friendly. No, CLI is not user friendly no matter what you say; no matter what excuse you use; no matter how blind you are. NOT ONE COMPANY dare to provide their mainstream products to be CLI only, from things as simply as ATM, ipod, to things as complicate as cellphone, cars, airplane. That ought to tell you something--- CLI is not intuitive, not intuitive=sucks, so CLI = sucks. You command line fan boys are more than welcome to program punched cards, expect no one use punched cards and machine language anymore because they are counter-intuitive. Having to do CLI is a pain for average user, and having to do CLI every time to install a new program/driver is a nightmare. GUI is a big selling point, and a gapless computer-human user experience is what every software company looking to achieve.
    2. There is NOTHING a Linux can do that windows cannot. On the contrary, there are a lot of things windows can do that Linux cannot. I’d like to challenge any Linux user to find engineering software alternatives on Linux, like matlab, simulink, xilinx, orcad, labview, CAD… you cannot. For people who actually user their computer for productive means (not saying typing documents are not productive, but you can type document using type writer with no CPU required whatsoever), there is nothing, again, I repeat, NOTHING that Linux can offer me.
    3. Security issues. I disagree with the security issues that windows has. I can set up a vista machines, turn it on, luck it into a cage, and it will be as security as any Linux machine out there. Hell. If I bought a piece of rock, pretend it was a computer and stare it all day, it would be the most secure system known to the man-kind. Linux’s security is largely due to one of the two reasons: 1. Not popular, not enough software to support and to play with. 2. Not popular, un user-friendly. Either of them is not a good title to have. It is like you are free from the increase of the tax not because you have your business set up to write off all your expense, but because you don’t make any money thus you don’t have to pay tax.
    4. There is nothing revolutionary about Linux for an average user, other than it is free. If free is your biggest selling point, you are in serious trouble. Most people, if not all, would pay for quality product than a free stuff, unless it is just as good. Obviously Ubuntu is never going to be as good as windows because they don’t have the money that MS has. So what does Ubuntu have that really makes me want to switch and take few weeks of class to understand those commands?

    Be honest, people. If you only have ONE O/S to use, most of you guys will chose windows.
    Reply
  • kensolar - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link


    I hope you realize that your hated is showing so strongly that absolutely no one cares what you say.
    That said, I don't know how to use a cli and have been successfully using Linux for 3 years. I found the article to be a fairly fair one even though the author is so unfamiliar with Linux/Ubuntu. As he does not use the default app's in windows, linux users don't use the defaults only in linux. K3B is far superior to Brassaro and so on. In addition, I don't think he let on very well as to the extent of the software available in the repositories (with addition repositories easy to add). Several hundred app's, 20,000 programs, even security app's and programs ranging from easy as pie to complicated. (for those of us how have a computer that is more than a rock) I personally do audio mixing, video transcoding, advanced printing....all with graphic interfaces.
    BTW, I learned how to turn on a computer for the 1st time 3 1/2 years ago, I stopped using windows a little over 3 years ago and have no reason to go back. I find it too hard, limiting and frustrating to use. Plus, I can't live w/o multiple desktops, the author didn't get it yet, but once you get used to them you can't go back.
    Well, I've said enough for now, can't wait for your next article.

    Reply

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