Mark Shuttleworth: "Time for mass consumer sales of Linux on desktop has not yet come"

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The founder of the Ubuntu-project talks in an interview about the integration of proprietary drivers, the One Laptop per Child project and "great applications" from Microsoft

In the fall of 2004 a new distribution entered the Linux scene: Ubuntu. It's popularity grew quickly, making it the number one Linux distribution according to Distrowatch. Ubuntu was initiated by the South-African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, who made a fortune by selling his own company Thawte to Verisign in the Nineties and was therefore able to guarantee the funding for the project. Till today Shuttleworth remains the "face of Ubuntu", Andreas Proschofsky spoke with him - amongst other things - about the current status of the distribution, the competition and the One Laptop per Child project.

This interview is also available in a german translation. When Ubuntu first appeared on the Linux scene, it was considered a cutting edge distribution. Do you think this is still true nowadays? For instance the current openSUSE seems to integrate quite a bit more cutting edge stuff for the desktop like Beagle / their own main menu / Compiz.

Mark Shuttleworth: Very much so. Of course I respect the stuff that the other distributions do, but I think Ubuntu has a very vibrant community and so some really innovative things happen here first. For example in our newest release Ubuntu is the first distribution to have a complete framework for detecting application failures and crashes and then inviting the users to send information about that failure back to us and we then pass that on to the developers. And that's a fantastic new innovation in terms of being able to raise the quality of the whole desktop experience.

Also we've the fancy 3D-effects, although they are not turned on by default cause we don't think they are yet mature or reliable enough to turn on everywhere.

So in a free software world we can very quickly integrate the good work that comes from other distributions and we also have a strong community to do work on our own. In relation to Novell or Red Hat, Ubuntu doesn't employ a lot of hackers. Does Ubuntu even have enough developers on its own to define their own releases, instead of just following the footpaths of the others?

Mark Shuttleworth: I think that's entirely untrue. We've 50 or so free software developers that are now working for the company, we continue to hire what we think are the very best guys from a variety communities from upstream, from Debian and from other places were innovation happens. I also think that our approach is specifically designed to work well with the free software community.

For instance if you look at our Milestone overview at you'll see the full set of features that were planned for this release and their various states of delivery, that covers all the work of the community and the folks that work on Ubuntu fulltime through Canonical, and I think you'll agree, that this is a substantial list of special features. And that's in addition to all the things that happen in GNOME, that happen in or at the kernel level. But still: Edgy Eft and Feisty Fawn are both more "conservative" releases than originally planned.

Mark Shuttleworth: Actually there is just one feature that I really wanted to land in both, that is Compiz or Beryl enabled by default. And the reasons not to do so was just they were not stable enough to be pushed out to the users. In Feisty Compiz is in fact installed it's just not enabled, but it's just a single checkbox to turn it on.

And also, I don't always get what I want. I'm just one person in a big community. Though in your original proposal for Edgy Eft, you encouraged the Ubuntu community to "go wild" and integrate all the "cool new stuff" and not a lot has come through from this.

Mark Shuttleworth: Well, I disagree. For instance in Edgy we rewrote the Init-System from scratch, for the first time in something like 15 years. So that was a very fundamental bit of engineering, that other distributions are now looking to adopt, like Debian or Fedora. Just because Compiz - which is done by Novell - was not ready, you can't say that either Edgy or Feisty were a failure. It seemed that one of the reasons for not enabling Compiz for Feisty Fawn was that the free drivers were not good enough. Why are you confident that this will change for the next release?

Mark Shuttleworth: That's not the case. The actual software itself - Compiz and Beryl - is not good enough. If it would be, we would consider using the proprietary drivers in order to make it work. So if Compiz will be in a better state you'll integrate it into Gutsy Gibbon (the next release after Feisty Fawn)

Mark Shuttleworth: That's not yet decided. It will depend on how our technical board and community counsel feel about it. But in the past what we have done is, if there is a free software application which is compelling and exciting and important and also mature enough to go into the desktop, we've used proprietary drivers to make it work. We would expect to do exactly the same for Compiz, if Compiz reaches a level of maturity we consider ready for the desktop. While announcing Gutsy Gibbon you also announced a new "totally free" flavor of Ubuntu. What's the reasoning behind that?

Mark Shuttleworth: Well the first thing is that that new flavor of Ubuntu won't just insist on freedom for software. In many cases there is software and content in distributions today - in Ubuntu and other distributions like Debian - which is not free. So for example very few pieces of firmware ship their source code, so this new flavor of Ubuntu won't ship any firmware unless we can also ship the source code for it.

In regards to content: There are kinds of content out there - like PDFs and so on - which are not editable but where there is an editable source document effectively, and we won't include this content unless we include the source document. Things like video content: Well, an edited video is nice, but what about the source materials? So this version of Ubuntu will not include any video footage unless it also includes either the source content or access to the source content. By this we are extending the concept of "freedom" to cover not just applications software, all the way down to firmware and content which is further than any other distribution goes. With the Long time support (LTS) in Dapper Drake you also started to target Enterprise users. Where do you see your place in this environment, as Red Hat and Novell offer a lot more administrative tools for such a kind of deployment? Why should a big or medium-sized company who need centralized management choose Ubuntu over Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise?

Mark Shuttleworth: Right we don't have additional proprietary tools such as Novell has, but we do believe that we make the best free software platform for both the commercial ecosystem - like Oracle and DB2 - as well as the free software ecosystem. So I don't think we need to offer large numbers of proprietary solutions on top of Linux. We don't see Linux as a teaser trailer for selling people proprietary commercial software. But that's not just about proprietary software, there's also the question of centralized management, which for instance SUSE delivers through YAST and Zenworks, also you don't have anything comparable to a security framework like AppArmor or SELinux.

Mark Shuttleworth: Yes, we don't have AppArmor, there is some preliminary work to make SELinux function smoothly in the Ubuntu environment. But at this stage we don't consider those to be production ready, so we don't integrate them by default. What about centralized management? This is very important for companies and you don't currently have that.

Mark Shuttleworth: That's true. And again, we don't have an internal solution for that, although we know that people are deploying Ubuntu in very large configurations, finding it quite possible to manage that themselves. We have installations of several 100.000 machines in spain, obviously you know that Google uses Ubuntu on all of their developer desktops. I certainly take your point, that we are a relatively new entry to the enterprise space, but I don't think this is proving to be an obstacle to adoption. When will the next LTS-release be coming?

Mark Shuttleworth: I expect that to be Feisty +2 (or the next release after Gutsy), but obviously that's not my sole decision and we'll consult our technical board about that. It's very important for us to be confident about what's going on upstream, so now is the right time for us to look at that and try to make a decision. Most of your user base seems to be in the "technical enthusiast"-area. How do you plan to break out of this and make inroads in a more general / basic computer user audience?

Mark Shuttleworth: Well there are some places now, where Ubuntu is a better option than Windows. It's not everywhere - not by any means - but there are some places. So for example we get a lot of reports now of developers who install computers for their parents and they put Ubuntu on them, because it's not gonna get spyware, it's not gonna get viruses, it's very easy to maintain remotely and keep up-to-date. And so they are not getting constantly called by their parents saying their computer won't work or "my ISP tells me that I got viruses on my computer". It does everything they need, it does web and e-mail, office and spreadsheets and things like that. So in those cases Ubuntu is a very good option for everyday users. It's also good in call centers or office environments, where everybody is just using web-based applications. As an example, Lufthansa has all of their pilots use Ubuntu on their Laptops, cause they are constantly in different hotels using the WIFI-system and they don't want to get spyware and viruses. So there are lots of places where Ubuntu is relevant for ordinary users.

(Remark: As Lufthansa points out, this is actually not true. Ubuntu is only used for Contact Air, which is also shown in a case study on the webpage of the Linux distribution)

But not everywhere, I absolutely would agree to that. But it's certainly good enough for me and I'm a pretty demanding user. So when will it be possible to walk into a store and just pick Ubuntu off the shelf?

Mark Shuttleworth: You can do that right now in Brazil, in China, in Russia and in the Ukraine. You can't do it in North America or here in Europe.

I certainly would not push the large IT companies to put Linux on consumer PCs, because I understand that in their business, the cost of a user accidentally getting Linux, thinking that they get cheap Windows would be a problem for the companies selling the computers. So I don't think it is really ready yet for mass consumer sales of Linux on desktop. But I think in strategic target markets, like workstation or in emerging markets, there are good opportunities and we work with the companies in those markets to execute on those opportunities. So are we going to get pre-installed Ubuntu on Dell computers?

Mark Shuttleworth: Well - time will tell. Are there active talks on that?

Mark Shuttleworth: I would not comment on any conversations underway. You seem to have a strong relationship to Sun, are you going to further improve on that in the future?

Mark Shuttleworth: You know I won't give any hints on things that are yet unannounced, but I will say, that I'm extremely happy with our relationship with Sun. It's been very good for us, it's been the first major server vendor to adopt and embrace Ubuntu. So that's given us entry to customers that we wouldn't have otherwise had access to. And it certainly raised our profile in the enterprise space. And I would credit Sun with recognizing, that we are a significant and valuable ally in their move to become more free software oriented. Initially the development of Ubuntu was mostly financed by your private funds, is this still the same or is this already changing?

Mark Shuttleworth: Well, it's changing, but it's not completely changed. Ubuntu still does depend on continued funding from me. I think it's a very efficient way for me to spend money and have a philanthropic impact. There are millions of people who now have access to technology thats reliable and thats free. And that's an empowering thing which they can use to start businesses or learn about technology, become developers.

At the same time , the exciting challenge for me personally is to build something that the world has never seen before. Which is an enterprise quality infrastructure, that is freely available - globally - and has commercial support and a commercial ecosystem around it, but on the other hand is also available to people not willing to pay for support. It's important for me to focus on that as a personal goal. Adding to this: How is the business side of Canonical evolving? How successful is the LTS-support and the server side of things?

Mark Shuttleworth: It's great, we are continuing to grow that team. I'd say 70 percent of our business is focused on the server, and 60 percent is North America. But are there really big customers that are paying for your support?

Mark Shuttleworth: Yes of course. There are some large organizations who use Ubuntu, who have the skills internally and have the confidence to support themselves, but we find what they tend to do is to use it in more and more mission-critical places, so sooner or later they reach the point, where just from the perspective of good governance, they wanna make sure, that they have a contract in place with us and have access to our expertise in case they need it.

But let me just say: Ubuntu is cleary a new entry in the enterprise scene, and we wouldn't expect to have everything in place, but I'm extremely pleased with the progress that we made. Recently Debian 4.0 has been released, on your weblog you congratulated the Debian team for this. But other than that: Does a new Debian release still have a high importance for Ubuntu?

Mark Shuttleworth: The release itself is not particular important for us, what's really important for us is the health of the community and the continued contribution and participation of the developers in Debian unstable - which we use as a base for our own releases.

Debian is a very important partner for us, I'm very happy that they made the Etch release, I'm pleased that it continues to be a great community. I think it's one of the great free software institutions like the kernel community or GNOME and KDE. Did you recently try out Windows Vista? What was your impression?

Mark Shuttleworth: I haven't actually tried Vista final, I tried to run a Vista Beta under VMWare and wasn't very successful, but I can see, that they have tried to raise the game. I would credit Microsoft with building great applications and some ground-breaking kind of work. I didn't see anything in Vista that i felt personally was particularly striking, but I really haven't used it heavily myself. What is more popular: Ubuntu or Kubuntu?

The GNOME-version is downloaded about twice as much as the KDE version. But KDE is still a very important community, as a source of innovation in the community. I'm very interested and excited by the work that is going on KDE 4 and I'm excited that a lot of that is happening inside of Ubuntu. What's your take on the One Laptop per Child-project?

Mark Shuttleworth: I think it's a really beautiful project and I'm very supportive of the work, they are doing some great innovations in there. I expect that some of the countries that will go down that road will choose Ubuntu and if they do that, we would help them to make Ubuntu work very well on that platform. At this stage obviously everyone is waiting to see how it will pan out, my own sensing is, that it's already a triumphant success in terms of shaking up the industry and getting the industry to think about both new technologies and new markets. But I fear that people may judge it harshly if they don't actually produce the laptop for a 100 Dollars and unfortunately it looks like that is unlikely at this stage. When is Launchpad going to be released as Open Source?

Mark Shuttleworth: Well at this stage, there is no real drive to do so, for a couple of reasons. First it's an infrastructure which is designed to run as a centralized infrastructure. It wouldn't help to have two or three Launchpads out there. It's designed to be like a consolidation and aggregation of information from other places.

Second we continue to release pieces of it where we think those will help communities. So we gave pieces of the translation infrastructure to the GNOME community, we constantly have fed back up patches and changes to the Zope community. And in fact the Zope community just adopted Launchpad as their own bug tracker.

We will release all the pieces of Launchpad one-by-one as it makes sense to do so, as we see a viable community to release the code to. Thanks for taking your time to do this interview.

(Andreas Proschofsky)



  • Mark Shuttleworth, driving force behind the Ubuntu Linux distribution
    foto: archiv

    Mark Shuttleworth, driving force behind the Ubuntu Linux distribution

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