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Open source ubuntu

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Despite its world-saving image, open source software has not made much real revolution. But Becky Hogge finds hope in new software "for human beings", designed to bridge the digital divide.

I have lost count of the many seminars, conferences and talks I've attended recently where that magic phrase "the-open-source-operating-system-Linux" has resounded. Whether uttered by a New Labour policy wonk or a Polish art historian it has the same effect: the crowd of academics, bloggers and civil servants goes gooey, basking smugly in the image of thousands of bearded geeks quietly subverting the capitalist beast from the comfort of their bedrooms, chewing caffeine gum and trotting out code that rivals Microsoft's.

But it's a bit more complicated than that. Linux comes in all kinds of different flavours, called distributions or "distros", and with each distro the code-base, licensing terms, support model, philosophy and community or company organisation varies. Understand these differences, and the utopian prism through which the average non-geek views open source software shifts.

Most non-programmers only talk about Linux, they don't run it. Technology is no good if people can't use it. Enter Ubuntu Linux.

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