As technology continues to standardise and move online, the value proposition of alternatives to Microsoft Windows has grown. One of these alternatives, Ubuntu - a Linux-based operating system that was founded in 2004 - has grown to the point where it has at least 20 million users worldwide, including large-scale business and government deployments.
Ubuntu is something like a hybrid of its competitors, Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Mac OS X. Like Windows, Ubuntu is designed to work on any PC (whereas Mac OS X runs only on Apple Macs); like Mac OS X, Ubuntu doesn't run Windows software. Unlike either of its competitors, however, Ubuntu is free to install and use, and ships with a standard set of applications for web browsing, productivity and multimedia, including the LibreOffice alternative to Microsoft Office. This means that if a small business' needs match up well with Ubuntu's strengths and limitations there is the potential to save literally thousands of dollars in software licensing costs.
After two years of development and research, the next major enterprise-ready version of Ubuntu is due for release in April 2012. Featuring a brand new desktop interface called Unity, Ubuntu 12.04 promises to be easier to use than ever before, and will include five years of security updates (up from three in the previous version). If the new version lives up to expectations Ubuntu could start to make Windows and Office completely unnecessary for many small businesses. Look out Microsoft!