Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What's Ubuntu, and how is it different from Linux?

Ubuntu Basics

Ubuntu is a distribution -- or distro -- of Linux. In Linux lingo, a distribution is a version of the operating system that has the Linux kernel as its foundation. There are literally hundreds of different Linux distros out in the wild. Many are free and have communities of users who provide each other with guidance and support. But installing a free Linux distro with limited support options can be intimidating to the average computer user. That's where Ubuntu comes in.

Ubuntu, distributed by a company named Canonical, is an example of a commercial project based on the Linux kernel. Founded by businessman and philanthropist Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's mission is to provide a software platform that is free for users and developers. Rather than charge for the operating system, Canonical's business depends upon providing commercial support for its products. It also helps companies and organizations design computer systems with an eye on efficiency and cost management.

What that means for you is that Ubuntu is a free operating system you can install on a computer. Getting a copy is simple -- you can visit the Ubuntu Web site and download the OS directly. You'll need to have either a CD or USB drive to save the OS. Once you've copied the OS to the drive or CD, you can boot your computer using Ubuntu.

One cool feature of Ubuntu is that Canonical doesn't care if you have a fear of commitment. Booting from the USB drive or CD lets you play with the Ubuntu OS without overwriting your computer's native OS. If you're a loyal Windows user or Mac OS X devotee, you don't need to feel guilty. You can see Ubuntu on the side without hurting your long-term OS relationship.

If you find Ubuntu to be exactly what you need, you can load it on your computer to either run side-by-side with your existing OS, or you can break up with your old SOOS -- that's significant other operating system -- and start seeing Ubuntu exclusively. There's even an option to run Ubuntu within Windows itself as if it were any other piece of software.

Next, we'll take a look at what sets Ubuntu apart from a basic Linux OS.