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What do French gendarmes, Andalucian school children, Wikipedia and San Francisco International airport have in common?It is not the set up for a tortuous pun. Instead all of them are big users of the free Ubuntu operating system.The French national police force runs its operations on the open source OS; computer systems supporting Spanish schools have their own version; the online encyclopaedia runs its hundreds of servers on Ubuntu and SFIA's internal computer system is based around it.Ubuntu is based on Linux - the open source operating system that is maintained, expanded and extended by legions of fans and professional programmers around the world. Thanks to their efforts Ubuntu has become the most popular of all the Linux distributions.On 29 October, version 9.10 of Ubuntu is released. All versions of the operating system have an alternative alliterative appellation. Ubuntu 9.10 is known as Karmic Koala.The launch comes in the wake of Microsoft's fanfare around Windows 7 - the latest incarnation of its flagship operating system.Factory modeWhile Ubuntu's developer Canonical can not quite match the hoopla surrounding Windows 7 for its launch, the software competes where it matters, said Chris Kenyon, one of Canonical's OS evangelists. "For the first time in 20 years you can buy Ubuntu pre-installed from more than one manufacturer," he said. "That's an extraordinary story." Computer makes HP, Dell, Toshiba and Acer now all offer the OS as a choice on machines people buy via their websites. The number of models varies by territory with the software proving more popular in some places than others. Dell China, said Mr Kenyon, has more than 40 models with Ubuntu available. Before now, he said, many people installed the software themselves on laptops and desktops that formerly ran Windows. Their experiences varied because the development effort that helps to keep Ubuntu updated sometimes lags behind what people are using. But, he said, with the software increasingly likely to be installed at the factory those days of frustration may be on the wane. "Hardware problems are only really solved through installation," he said. "That's going to become increasingly the case over the next 12 months."Competition timeThe steady march of technology was also removing many of those stumbling blocks that stopped people plumping for Ubuntu and kept them with Windows or Apple's OS X, said Mr Kenyon. Some have been reluctant to move to Ubuntu and open source software because it would mean learning their way around programs that were the equivalent of what they used on older machines. But, said Mr Kenyon, the growing use of web applications - such as Google Docs - was eroding those differences quickly. "The web is making the compatibility part far easier," he said.To help with that ease of use Ubuntu 9.10 has Firefox 3.5 onboard that works with the many web-based programs, such as the BBC iPlayer, that are becoming increasingly popular. With the web levelling the playing field between the different OS makers, Mr Kenyon said the fact that Ubuntu runs faster and is more secure than rivals on the same hardware will convince many to try it. He admitted that some of the security of Ubuntu was down to the fact that cyber criminals do not target it in the same way as they do Windows. "Some of the security is through obscurity but it's also better by design," he said. "Fundamentally it requires you to run a safer system. It's there from the ground up."Canonical is also making it easier to road test Ubuntu with a "live mode" that lets potential users run it off a USB drive to check its compatibility with the hardware on their desktop or laptop.Evidence that it is being taken seriously can be found, he said, in the annual "10-K form" that Microsoft files with the SEC. Every public firm must file one of these to outline the market conditions and competitors it believes pose the greatest threat to its business. In 2009, for the first time, Canonical got a mention.Given that Microsoft recognises its success, Mr Kenyon is convinced that it's only a matter of time before Ubuntu's 12 million strong pool of users is joined by many more. "We're nearing a tipping point," said Mr Kenyon.