Why Non-profits Should Care About Ubuntu

Non-profits are always concerned about costs. With funding often coming solely from donations, they have to be sure that the money given by their supporters is used in the most efficient way possible, and as much as possible is being spent on core activities.

IT often requires substantial financial layout in both equipment and skills hiring or contracting, and any way to reduce costs—initial and ongoing—should be investigated.

In this article, I’m going to address the topic of IT resources, and why non-profits should care about Ubuntu, and open source technology in general.

What is Ubuntu?

The short answer is: Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux, a free and open source operating system.

Hang on a second. Distribution? Linux? Open source? Operating system? Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not an IT technician!

To better understand the short answer, we need to know how computer programs are created.

Writing a Computer Program

To create a computer program such as MS Office, Photoshop, iTunes, or Angry Birds, a software programmer writes a program in a human-readable programming language. This is called source code. In order for a computer to run the program, the source code must be converted or compiled into executable code instructions that the computer can process.

Most commercial software, from Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple, etc., have their company’s proprietary technology in them, and naturally, they don’t want to give their secrets away, so they don’t provide the source code when you buy their software. It’s the same as KFC keeping the recipes for their chicken secret.

This type of software is called proprietary, because it is owned by the software company, and closed source because you only receive the executable code.

Open Source is not Freeware

Before I continue, I need to clear up a misunderstanding. Open source software is not the same as Freeware.

You may already know about Freeware, software that is given away for free. Examples of this type of software are AVG anti-virus, the CCleaner system optimization tool, and LimeWire downloading software.

While these programs may be perfectly good, they are closed source proprietary programs because only the executable code is provided; you don’t have access to their source code. Additionally, these programs are usually given away with licenses that allow only free personal use on one computer; commercial use must be paid for as with other commercial programs.

There are also other Freeware programs that are given away for free for nefarious purposes, i.e. they may install advertising or other unwanted software, have annoying pop-ups that urge you to buy something, or even purposefully infect your computer with a virus.

Open Source Computer Programs

Open source programs are written the same way as commercial programs, but with some significant differences.

  • They are usually written by volunteers or hobby programmers in their spare time, although they may be paid software programmers in their day job.
  • The technology is not usually owned by anyone in the proprietary sense above.
  • The executable code is usually released under a license which requires that the source code of the program be freely available and that any program that uses all or part of that source code to also be released under the same license.

The last point is an example of Copyleft licensing, which requires that derivative works be released under the same license. The GNU General Public License and the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License are examples.

This effectively makes the resulting programs cost-free, because anyone can download the source code and compile their own executable code.

You may think that open source software is only used by computer experts, programmers, or nerds like me. But you’d be wrong.

38% (351,700,572) of web servers on the Internet use Apache, an open source web server program. 54% of the top one million busiest websites on the Internet use Apache.

The Firefox web browser and VLC Media Player are two examples of extremely popular open source programs.

Operating System

An operating system is a special software program that allows you to use your computer hardware. Its sole purpose is to enable you to use the devices (disk drives, keyboard, mouse, screen, etc.) attached to the computer.

Microsoft Windows 7 and Mac OSX are PC operating systems, as are Android and iOS for smartphones.

Linux

Linux is an open source operating system. It’s actually a little more complicated than this, but for a brief overview, it’s an adequate definition.

It was created as a university project in 1991 by a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds. It is conceptually based on UNIX, a stable, secure, multi-user operating system, developed by AT&T in 1969 for the large mainframe computers in use at that time.

As we now know, an operating system only allows you to use your computer. We need other software programs to actually do something useful, like surf the Internet, write homework assignments, watch movies and listen to music.

Linux Distribution

A Linux distribution is a full set of software programs (e.g. email program, web browser, word processor, media player, and all the rest) bundled together with the Linux operating system and released on a single CD or DVD.

Linux distributions are put together by individuals, groups, or even companies. They can be put together to perform specific tasks, e.g. a regular desktop computer, a web or email server, a video editing workstation, or whatever you can think of.

Now that we have a little background knowledge, I can tell you about Ubuntu.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu was first released in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth, a South African multi-millionaire who made his fortune on the Internet.

Ubuntu is an African word which embodies the ethical concepts of community, sharing, generosity, and relationships among people. This ethic forms the core of Ubuntu’s business philosophy.

  • Every user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.
  • Every user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.
  • Every user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they have a disability.

And its commitment to software freedom.

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

Ubuntu is available in more than 55 languages, and there are currently over 30,000 free open source programs available for it. It is reliable, stable and secure by design. It has several different Graphic User Interfaces to suit most tastes and a worldwide community of users from which to get support.

Finally, there are no viruses for Linux. This was the reason that convinced my mum to switch from Windows XP to Ubuntu a few years ago. She won’t use anything else now. She’s in her seventies.

Why aren’t People Flocking to Ubuntu?

Windows holds just under 91% of the desktop computer market. Internet Explorer still holds a large portion of the web browser market, although statistics vary widely. However, Google Chrome is making serious inroads into this market share. MS Office is still a significant player in the office applications market, but it also is rapidly losing ground to Google Docs and other office application suites, especially those online.

Ignorance

Unless you’re a nerd, most people are very unlikely to know about other PC operating systems except Windows and MAC/OSX. In fact, most people are unlikely to even know what an operating system is, or the fact that you can change the one that came with your computer when you bought it.

This is not a judgment or a criticism, but a plain fact—most people don’t have any reason to know about these things.

Fear

Windows, Internet Explorer and MS Office are familiar to most people and they know how to use them, almost without having to think. It’s this familiarity that lies to us and tells us that changing to something else is hard, not because it’s hard, but because it’s different.

We forget the difficulty we had initially learning the things we are now familiar with.

Legacy

Particularly in South Korea, where a government decision made over a decade ago that locked Korean web developers into Internet Explorer, and consequently Microsoft software, there is a huge legacy infrastructure of Microsoft technologies embedded into almost all aspects of anything PC or web-based.

For the rest of the world, it’s this way also because, for a large part of Microsoft’s history, there simply wasn’t any real competition; Microsoft products are all most people know.

The exception to this in South Korea is Korean-made smartphones, which all use Android, an OS based on Linux developed by Google.

Complacency

Complacency is fear’s baby brother. For most people, if something works well enough, why change it? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! And anyway, it’s always been done this way.”

For me, this is one of the worst reasons to not change.

Why Non-profits Should Care

There are many reasons why non-profits should care about open source software. Here I’m going to outline what I consider to be the main four.

Free

The first reason to care about Ubuntu, and open source software, is that it’s free.

With the constant fight to keep costs down, not having to spend thousands or even millions of dollars on operating systems and programs should be enough to make non-profits sit up and take notice.

You may then wonder how these companies make enough money to stick around.

Ubuntu, and other companies, offer ancillary services that are not free. For example, cloud services, infrastructure management, support, consultancy, and training and certification.

What about the costs of transitioning to and maintaining a new technology?

It isn’t going to be free, but it’s mostly an up-front cost, which means that as the years progress, the initial cost will actually save you money. If you have an IT department worth their salt, they’ll have some familiarity with Linux and open source, and should be able to handle the transition to a new platform. If they don’t, why did you hire them?

As for user unfamiliarity with Linux and Ubuntu, most open source programs look and work the same as their closed source proprietary counterparts. And how many of your users need more than word processing and a web browser anyway?

Freedom

The second reason is that it’s free from restrictions.

The license under which open source software is released also ensures that the software is free for users to modify as they see fit. Consequently, the technologies in one distribution are not owned by one company, even though a company or organization like Ubuntu produces and distributes their own branded product.

Because of this freedom, it’s possible to change the operating system, or any of the programs, to suit your needs specifically without having to pay anyone a license fee to do so.

This flexibility allows an organization to be much more adaptive to changing situations. For a small organization, this is essential.

Security and Stability

Linux was designed from the start to be secure.

What does this mean?

It means that there must be an Administrator login for each computer, and it must have a password. It means that regular (non-administrator) users must have a separate login and that they cannot install software into the system without knowing the Administrator password. This reduces the accidental installation of malicious software that might hijack computers or erase or expose sensitive data to almost zero.

This also ensures that only properly evaluated software is installed, which maintains the stability of individual computers, reducing maintenance call and other disruptions.

This also means that there is no reason to install software on computers that lock them from having new software installed, or constantly check for cracked programs. The computers can be managed remotely through the Administrator account, with updates enabled automatically.

Open Formats

Many people will be unfamiliar with the issue of file formats and have probably never thought about it, even if they know about it. However, it is important in terms of information portability and future-proofing.

The default file formats used by Ubuntu and other open source programs are open formats; for example ODT (text), OGG (audio), PNG (image), and MKV (video).

Examples of proprietary formats are any MS Office file format before Office 2007 (i.e. DOC, PPT, XLS, etc.), PSD (Photoshop image), WMA ( Windows audio), and RAR (compression).

As with proprietary software, proprietary formats are owned by someone, a company or an individual, with the technologies usually a closely-guarded secret.

Open formats are owned by no one in the proprietary sense, as they are released under the same open licenses as open source software. This means that there is no vendor lock-in requiring the purchase of a particular piece of software to access a certain type of file.

This links to the freedom idea above; any software that can properly interpret, read and write a format can be used. The information is easily portable and accessible

This provides future-proofing due to the fact that

  • the specifications of the formats are publicly available, so data interpretation and retrieval will always be possible, and
  • if a software developer ceases development, a new developer can take over or write new software to read the format.

All of this ensures long-term information integrity and continued use of the collected information for data-mining and analysis.

In Summary

Ubuntu is cost-free, allows freedom of use for any purpose on as many computers as you want, allows the freedom to change or adapt it in any way you want, provides security and stability by design, and uses free and open formats by default.

Ubuntu has a number of attractive and user-friendly interfaces, and a large community from which to get support.

Using open formats can ensure information is always accessible and can be used long into the future when the original application in which it was created may have ceased to exist.

Interested?

If you want to try Ubuntu you can download a LiveCD and use it without making any changes to your computer.

Useful Links

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Ubuntu and open source. I’ve been using Linux for about 15 years, and Ubuntu for about 8. It’s the primary operating system on all of my computers.

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