Computer giant Dell made big news yesterday when it began shipping desktops and laptops pre-installed with Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution. I'm not sure who the heck is going to buy a Linux Dell, but it certainly marks a sea change in retail computing. In terms of prepackaged operating systems, users have basically been stuck for a long time with the solitary choice of Windows vs. Mac. The fact that consumers can now purchase a Linux machine with support from the distributor certainly validates the open-source movement and Ubuntu in particular.
Yet if you're curious about Linux or Ubuntu, it hasn't been very simple to install it on your Windows machine. Up until recently, the process has usually involved partitioning your hard drive for the Linux install and creating a boot CD from a downloaded ISO file.
Luckily, for those of us who are Linux-curious and either too lazy or too inexperienced to install a distro on our own, beta software called Wubi literally takes all of the hassle out of running Ubuntu on your Windows machine, and it can be removed from your system as easily as any other Windows application. All it takes to run Wubi is a recommended 1GHz CPU, 128MB RAM, and 3GB of disk space for the initial Ubuntu installation.
Wubi is a front-end installer for the loop installer Lupin. Without getting too technical (and over my head), Lupin is back-end software for installing Debian-based Linux distributions inside of a specific file, without affecting any existing partitions on the hard drive. In conjunction with Wubi, it installs Ubuntu into a file in your Windows system.
Getting started with Ubuntu using the Wubi front-end interface is as simple as running any other self-extracting Windows installer. Double-click the "Wubi-7.04-test2.exe" file and you'll be presented with only a few options. Enter your language of choice, your new Ubuntu username and password (twice), and hit "Install." That's literally all you have to do to install Ubuntu, but there are a few options that you should consider.
Hitting the Settings button from the Ubuntu Setup dialog will provide you with a few more choices. You can tweak your system size, home size, or swap size, as well as select the local drive where you'd like to install Ubuntu. The default selections are 6GB, 1GB, 1GB, and the C drive. If you have a foreign keyboard, you can specific that in the Advanced Settings as well. You can also decide to install Kubuntu, Xubuntu, or UbuntuStudio, three Ubuntu derivatives. If you don't know what any of those are, I'd recommend sticking with the vanilla Ubuntu installation.
Now, before you hit Install, a quick warning: you may want to download the Ubuntu ISO file from a different source than the one that the Wubi installer uses. Right now, Wubi downloads the ubuntu-7.04-alternate-i386.iso file from releases.ubuntu.com, and depending on your connection, it can be very slow. When I installed it on my laptop computer, the 698MB ISO file took over nine hours (!!) to download at an average of 25Kbps on a 300Kbps Wi-Fi connection.
From the CNET corporate network (a fat pipe), I'm still seeing that file downloading at 100Kbps, which isn't horrible, but it will still take a few hours to download. If you can acquire the Ubuntu ISO file separately, you can skip the Wubi downloading process by placing the Ubuntu ISO file in the same directory as the Wubi installer before you run it.
Once the long download process completed, installation was extremely quick. I accessed my bootup menu during startup and immediately noticed an "Ubuntu" selection under the usual Windows XP. I selected Ubuntu, and a blue screen quickly ran through a series of steps such as formatting the virtual disk, detecting system hardware, configuring the DHCP connections, installing the base system, and installing the application suite. Ubuntu comes prebundled with a variety of software, including Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice.org.
The final stage of the installation process only took about 15 to 20 minutes. As the developers say on their Web site, go grab a cup of coffee and come back to Ubuntu. After that, I was off and running, using Firefox to cruise the Web for cool software for Ubuntu and setting up my e-mail and document preferences.
Replacing Windows with Ubuntu is a major step, and I'm not going to get into the pros and cons here. Suffice it to say that my experiences trying to install Java to run the CNET corporate VPN software on Ubuntu have convinced me that I'm probably going to need Windows for a little while longer. However, it's wonderful to have a dual-boot system, and I didn't even have to partition my hard drive to do it. Thanks, Wubi!