Mark Shuttleworth on Ubuntu and the Linux Desktop

The man behind Ubuntu talks about how he hopes to catch up with Mac, his view of Novell-Microsoft, the role of proprietary software in Linux distros, the Ubuntu-Debian controversy and more.


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He is, without a doubt, the only open source software leader who might be called “dashing.” Young (34), fabulously rich (north of $500 million as of 1999) Mark Shuttleworth buzzes around on his own private jet, the Canonical One. Raised in South Africa, in 2002 he launched the First African in Space mission, training as a cosmonaut and hitching a ride aboard a Russian spaceship. While hanging out in the International Space Station he spoke via video-link with Nelson Mandela.

He is also, without a doubt, the open source leader who is most actively shaping the future of the Linux desktop. Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical, sponsors Ubuntu, which has done more than any other distribution to begin pushing the Linux desktop into the mainstream. In a controversial move, Ubuntu ships with a Restricted Drivers Manager, facilitating the use of proprietary technology. While this offends some purists, this decision – along with Ubuntu’s famously user-friendly interface – could enable adoption by a non-specialist mass audience.

Equally revolutionary was Canonical’s deal with Dell to sell desktops with Ubuntu pre-installed. Convincing a major hardware vendor to take a chance on Linux PCs (internationally) sent a shot heard across the software business.

In this wide-ranging interview, Shuttleworth discusses the Ubuntu initiatives for mobile and mini-PCs, and his goal of making the Ubuntu user interface on par with the Mac. He also addresses the Novell-Microsoft deal, the controversy about proprietary drivers in Ubuntu, the Debian-Ubuntu relationship, and more.

In conversation, Shuttleworth speaks with an elegant English accent, likely due to his South African upbringing. He now lives in London, which is where he called from:

What about Ubuntu Mobile? What’s on the way in this area?

By way of background, we see tremendous opportunity for Linux in the consumer electronics and mobile space. There’s room for great diversity of offerings, so we imagine in due course you’ll have Linux-based products from very large organizations like Nokia and Motorola, who will have their in-house proprietary stacks built on top of Linux, much of which may well be open source, through to highly customized platforms for very specific devices like navigation and so on.

But we do think there’s room for an open, royalty-free, standardized platform like Ubuntu. In the same way that we deliver the desktop, we think that there’s value in bringing the same values to the mobile space. So that’s what Ubuntu Mobile is all about. We’ve been working largely with Intel, which has an initiative called Moblin. It’s an initiative from Intel to develop a series of frameworks and applications for touch-oriented consumer electronics devices. They are the primary [promoter] of it, and we’re integrating that into a distribution in the same way that we integrate GNOME or KDE into our desktop-based distributions. So it’s exciting work.

The version that shipped recently is kind of a 1.0 for their first cut of Moblin. And we expect that it will have a 2.0 sometime in 2009, and we will evolve the Ubuntu mobile offering in close coordination with them.

And what about the recent news regarding Ubuntu designed for small, ultra portable laptops?

Yes, that’s what we call our Netbook Remix. That’s really the desktop set of applications, but with a different launcher and application switcher. So you’re optimizing for content creation and you’re making some tweaks for a slightly smaller screen; content creation because you have a keyboard.

Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth

You have a smaller screen, you’re trying to use the screen real estate more efficiently, more compactly, than you would in a normal desktop. But you’re not radically changing the application, you’re just compressing, slightly, the user experience. And then in the way people select and fire up the applications, you’re optimizing for the case where people have a [ultra-portable] laptop where they’re only running 4 or 5 applications regularly. So it’s a slightly different emphasis but it’s still a desktop.

Can you say any of the companies you’ll be working with on this initiative?

I can say we’ve concluded agreements with several of the global brands but those will be announced in due course.

This question comes from a member of Free Culture at Virginia Tech: Ubuntu is certainly a major step in the right direction in terms of universal usability of Linux for the average person's desktop/notebook. But the process isn’t complete yet. Are there any fundamental changes being considered to accelerate the release of a perfectly intuitive, out-of-the-box Ubuntu that will single-handedly dominate the world in the name of Free Software?

I think his premise is correct, that Linux has made leaps and bounds. And it’s not just Ubuntu – and Ubuntu certainly can’t take credit for all the progress that’s been made on the usability front. But we certainly champion the idea.

We genuinely believe that Linux can deliver what he’s asking for, and we want to be right in the front of the effort to help make that happen. But there are lots of other groups, upstream communities like GNOME and KDE, and other distributions, and all of us are playing our part.

I do think this [time period] is a unique opportunity for Linux to step up and appeal to, and deliver value for, the ordinary desktop user, or the non-specialist user. I think these Netbooks that we were talking about earlier are a very significant factor in making that possible.

We face an opportunity now, and partly that’s because Vista has not delivered to people’s expectations. Partly that’s because the Web is increasingly how people define the PC experience. It used to be, the PC was what you used to run Microsoft PowerPoint and today it’s what you use to surf the Web. And we can deliver a fantastic Web experience on Linux; I would argue a better Web experience than you get on Windows from a safety-security perspective. So for all of those reasons this is a really important time in the history of Linux.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Linux desktop, mark shuttleworth linux

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