Getting to Work with Linux
Linux is commonly referred to as an operating system, but in truth a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu is much more. In addition to the basic operating environment, Ubuntu ships with a variety of popular software applications, which means you can get to work as soon as you familiarize yourself with the available options.
Linux for the Office
The de facto standard office application suite for Linux is called OpenOffice.org, and it's installed by default when you first load Ubuntu. Like Microsoft Office, it consists of several components: Writer for word processing, Calc for spreadsheets, Impress for presentations, Draw for diagrams, and Base as a GUI front end for databases. On the whole it's a reasonable replacement for Office, though not quite as feature rich.
OpenOffice.org has garnered media attention for OpenDocument, its groundbreaking XML-based file formats, but the reality is that most users will often need to read and write Microsoft Office files. OpenOffice.org handles this well, for the most part: Opening files is completely transparent, and you need only remember to choose "Save As" to save in a format that Office can read -- but note that, at least for the moment, OpenOffice.org does not support any of the new Office 2007 file formats.
If OpenOffice.org is not to your liking, you have a few other options. AbiWord, for example, is a fast, lightweight word processor that offers similar features to OpenOffice.org Writer, and Gnumeric is an alternative, powerful spreadsheet program. Both are similarly Microsoft Office-compatible.
For graphics, the choices are more limited. The Gnu Image Manipulation Program, known as the GIMP, is the stock bitmap graphics program for Linux. It's mature and packed with features, but it's no Photoshop. For one thing, its user interface is somewhat arcane compared to what commercial OS users are accustomed to. More importantly, it lacks support for the CMYK color space, which makes it unsuitable for print production work. If working with images is your primary occupation, for the moment you're stuck with Windows or Mac OS X.
Accessing the Internet
Internet connectivity is one area where Linux shines. Internet clients number among the most polished open source applications -- so much so that many of the most prominent ones have also been ported to Windows and other operating systems.
The Firefox Web browser is a prime example. Not only is the application available on Windows and Mac OS X in addition to Linux, but user themes and add-ons written for Firefox are all completely cross-platform. It's even possible to share a single user profile between your Windows and Linux installations.
Ubuntu's IM client is called Pidgin. It's different from the vendor-branded clients in that it doesn't only connect to a one instant messaging service. It can connect to all of them at the same time, allowing you to manage all of your IM conversations from a single program. A version of Pidgin is also available for Windows.
Evolution is the default e-mail application on Ubuntu, and it aims to be a complete replacement for full-featured groupware clients such as Microsoft Outlook, including support for Exchange Server. Its calendar and address book can also integrate with other programs on the Ubuntu desktop, such as Pidgin. It can be very complicated to configure, though, so if you don't need all these features, you may want to install Thunderbird, the e-mail companion to Firefox.
Managing Software Packages
No two computer users are alike, so why should two computers be? The stock collection of software that's included with the default Ubuntu installation is a great place to start, but inevitably you'll want to try out some of the other applications found on the install media or the Ubuntu servers -- not to mention patching any newfound bugs or security vulnerabilities. Ubuntu provides a number of tools for these purposes.
The process of applying updates to your software is mostly automated, provided your system is connected to the Internet. You can also launch it manually by choosing Update Manager from the System > Administration menu. It's a good idea to apply any new updates regularly, because they may correct important security vulnerabilities. Thankfully, unlike Windows, Linux software updates rarely require a restart.
If you want to add new software or remove existing applications, there are two ways to do it. The easiest method is to use the Add/Remove utility from the Applications menu, which automates the process of installing the most popular desktop applications. If you need finer-grained control of your software, you can use Synaptic, the Ubuntu package manager, which you'll find under the System > Administration menu.
If you explore using Synaptic, you'll see that a stock Ubuntu system contains literally hundreds of software packages. You needn't worry about most of them. If you'd like to install new software for a specific purpose, Synaptic's search tools can help you locate a suitable package.
When only Windows Will Do
Modern open source applications offer a broad range of capabilities, but it's only fair to say that, being relatively late to the game, they are often less polished than their proprietary cousins. Occasionally you will find a Windows application for which there is simply no open source substitute. One choice is to use the Ubuntu boot menu to boot into Windows and use the application like you always would. If you'd like to remain in Linux as much as possible, you still have a couple of options.
One is virtualization. Linux's Xen virtualization engine can't yet boot Windows, but VMware's products can. With VMware you can have an entire Windows environment, applications and all, running in a window on your Linux desktop. It's strictly proprietary software, but VMware makes some versions of its products free for personal use.
The other alternative is Wine, a Windows compatibility layer for Linux. Wine comes with its own reverse-engineered versions of the Windows APIs, which means it lets you execute Windows binaries under Linux without having Windows installed. If you think that doesn't sound easy, you're right -- it only works on a select number of applications.