Where does Ubuntu go from here?

Most people were caught by surprise yesterday when Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company that backs-up Ubuntu, stepped down as the Linux company's CEO. But after I thought about it for a bit, the move made perfect sense to me and for where I believe Shuttleworth wants to take Ubuntu.

First: Shuttleworth is a really bright guy. He's so bright, in fact, that he realizes his limitations. While Shuttleworth is a great startup company guy -- he made his fortune by starting and then selling Thawte, an Internet security company -- and he knows technology, he's come to the conclusion that he's not the right guy to be the CEO of a maturing company.

Do you know how rare it is to realize that just because you're good at getting a company launched or you're a technical whiz that doesn't mean you're going to be a great corporate manager? I can't count how many potentially great companies I've seen crash and burn because their leaders didn't realize that just because they were wonderful visionaries didn't mean that they had what it takes to be a CEO.

Shuttleworth is also lucky. In Jane Silber, he has an experienced executive who I think has the skills that a top corporate executive needs to make Canonical profitable. While Shuttleworth can concentrate on the things he's good at, she can make sure the business side is ready to take the company to the next level.

And what is that next level? I don't see Canonical or Ubuntu changing its path much at all. As before, Canonical is focusing on three business lines. The first of these is growing Canonical enterprise server offerings. Ubuntu isn't ready to challenge RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) or even "number two but we try harder" Novell SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) yet, but the company is working hard on building the support infrastructure that corporate customers want to see before investing in a server operating system.

Along with that, Canonical, in partnership with Eucalyptus Systems, has been working hard on its cloud offerings. These efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The server version of Ubuntu 9.10 includes support for EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), Amazon's cloud computing service, and comes with a selection of standard AMI (Amazon Machine Images).

The company is also working on improving its support offerings not just for the enterprise but for individual and SMBs (small-to-medium businesses).

What might be changing though is that Shuttleworth may be going to work on advancing the Linux desktop. Ubuntu has always been one of the most popular Linux desktops, and it's been more successful than the others in getting pre-installed on systems from companies like Dell and System76. Still, the Linux desktop has only a tiny fraction of the traditional desktop market.

Shuttleworth said that he'll be spending more of his time with Asian hardware partners and that Ubuntu is looking forward to gaining more of the desktop market with its own Ubuntu offering "right under Windows 7's nose." Put these comments together, and I think he'll be working on getting more vendors, especially outside the U.S., to invest in pre-installed Linux laptops and desktops. I plan on following this very closely, since Google with its Chrome OS and the rise of ARM-powered netbooks with Linux all point to advances in end-user Linux in 2010.

So much for the business side, but what about Shuttleworth as head cheerleader and leader of Ubuntu? You don't need to worry about that. As he said with a laugh yesterday in a press conference, he's still the "self-appointed benevolent dictator for life" of Ubuntu. "It's a life sentence and I remain undaunted and that remains unchanged."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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