The Zulu word ubuntu roughly translates to "community" or "humanity to others," but a more accurate meaning is, "I am because we are; we are because I am." Not coincidentally, the Linux distribution Ubuntu seeks to bring this philosophy of selflessness to software development. To me, it best encapsulates what's wonderful about open-source software (OSS) development and seems to rise above the politics that often tarnish that movement. Ubuntu is my favorite Linux distribution, and if you're curious about life on the Other Side, I can't think of a better place to start.
As I wrote in Alt.Windows, Part 2: Windows Alternatives You Should Consider (March 30), Linux might be a bit untamed when compared with commercial offerings such as Windows and Macintosh OS X, but it's getting better. In some ways, the biggest obstacle that's holding Linux back is choice: There are so many Linux distributions to choose from, it's hard to know where to begin.
On a similar note, a few years ago, most Linux distributions were all about heft: The distribution makers threw in every conceivable option, utility, and application, almost as if to silence critics who might complain about the lack of available software for the system. However, that approach leads to a complicated OS. Therefore, modern Linux distributions such as Ubuntu are taking a different tact. Instead of giving you everything but the kitchen sink, Ubuntu delivers only the very best utilities and applications, and rarely will you find two or more instances of the same type of application.
Ubuntu is based on the GNOME desktop environment, which happens to be my favorite. (The other major Linux desktop environment, KDE, is too flashy for my tastes.) In Ubuntu 5.04, the latest version as of this writing, GNOME takes on a Mac-like aura, with a main system menu that's always available on the top of the screen. And you'll find precious few of those busy UI bits.
The bundled applications are excellent and well chosen. Ubuntu 5.04 includes the Evolution email client and Firefox Web browser, the OpenOffice.org 1.1.3 office-productivity suite, various multimedia applications, and a full suite of accessories, small games, and system-configuration utilities. When you consider that many, many computer users really just need an email client, Web browser, and maybe a word processor, you can see how a no-cost solution such as Linux starts to make sense. Now, couple those basic needs with the uncluttered simplicity of the Ubuntu Linux UI, and you've got a winner.
Because Ubuntu is based on the well-regarded Debian Linux distribution, it uses that system's Advanced Packaging Tool (APT) software-update technology to keep the system up-to-date. And because it's Linux, the system is secure out of the box (well, there's no real box), requiring you to create a normal user account and supply the password to an admin-level account whenever you attempt to make a change to the system.
Ubuntu is a Linux distribution aimed at real human beings, and as such it's appropriate for just about any computer user. You might need a more technical person to help you set it up, but once you get up and running in Ubuntu, you'll feel right at home.