The Grill: Ubuntu Linux's Mark Shuttleworth in the Hot Seat

He talks of free software for the masses, cultural tidal waves and building rockets

Mark Shuttleworth made news in 2002 when he fulfilled a lifelong ambition and became the first South African to travel into space, paying $20 million to be a civilian cosmonaut on an eight-day flight aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In 2004, he founded Ubuntu Linux to bring the operating system to people around the world. He is also the founder of HBD Venture Capital and the nonprofit Shuttleworth Foundation.

You have pumped more than $10 million of your own money into the continuing development of Ubuntu Linux, and you have been on a personal campaign to bring a free, easy-to-use and reliable Linux to the masses around the world. Why? In college, I was struggling to get my own personal computer hooked up to the university network. Then someone gave me a stack of Slackware Linux discs, and [I] found myself just enthralled by the breadth and depth of the tools that were available from Linux, even in those very early days. Its like going from living in the desert to walking into an all-you-can-eat buffet. I went on to turn that interest in the Internet into a small business called Thawte [in 1995], which sold digital certificates that I created, initially at least, with cryptographic software that was available under an open-source license.

How did you think of getting into such a business back in 1995, just as the Internet was becoming a household word? I was poor. I was desperate. I wanted to be on this bandwagon of this Internet thing, and I wanted to find a business that wouldnt require large amounts of bandwidth or large amounts of capital.


Mark Shuttleworth
Name: Mark R. ShuttleworthTitle: Founder, Ubuntu LinuxHome base: LondonMost interesting thing people don't know about him: "As a boy, spaceflight has always been intrinsically fascinating to me. Even when it involved smoking out the kitchen with badly made, gunpowder-fueled homemade rocket motors. Hours and hours of work, but all I ever made was a lot of smoke." In high school: "I was a bit of an overachiever, actually. I did a lot of cultural stuff and did embarrassingly well in exams and things."Early ambition: "I signed up at the University of Cape Town for a bachelors of science degree. Then, when I arrived at school, I felt horrified to see that all of the attractive girls were going over to the business school, so I switched."Wheels: "I dont have a car. I take the tube, or I take a cab."Last book you've read: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, a fantasy series by Jonathan StroudFavorite movie: The Fifth Element Favorite place: "Cape Town, South Africa, my hometown and where I want to live again someday."

The key was Linux. It was Linux that let me connect to the Net so I could start soaking up this knowledge. It was Linux that let me put servers down in a company with an employee count of one, and to have servers in three countries and administer them all remotely over slow dial-up lines. You could only do that with Linux.

I sold that business in 1999, right at the top of the Internet bubble. That then gave me the opportunity to sit back and ask myself, What are the things in life that I would like to be a part of? You know, life is short.

One thing was to explore space and be a part of that adventure. I went and I did that. And the other thought was to be a part of this experience of free software, which had been beneficial to me bringing that to a much wider audience. And thats the genesis of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Linux has come a long way in just three years. How far are you from the dream of Linux for the masses? Well, we certainly have been part of the process of making Linux more widely accepted and interesting and useful. Part of that has been fortunate timing. The Linux community itself around 2004 decided it was an interesting problem. The Linux kernel guys were feeling like they had proven that they could make the kernel stable and reliable and robust, and the next challenge was the desktop. So weve benefitted by entering the scene right at the same time as everybody else was getting interested in that.

Here in the U.S., Ubuntu has been getting attention for its desktop operating system. Whats the strategy for Ubuntu in the corporate marketplace with its server OS version? Of course, it will take time to build up a complete portfolio of certification. But many organizations have taken the first step, which is deploying Ubuntu on a server somewhere even if thats just an internal affair, such as a high-performance computing testbed and evaluation pool, places where they feel they can take some risks or places where they dont depend so much on third-party certifications. So, for instance, people who are deploying things like LAMP stacks love Ubuntu because it has everything they need. Weve seen very rapid adoption there. It will take time, obviously, to have people deploying it in the heart of their networks and underneath their database servers, because we have to build the relationships with those [software] vendors. Thats not quite the work of a lifetime, but its certainly a multiyear exercise.

What kind of response have you been getting from traditional IT vendors? It surprised people. You know, any surprise is a bad surprise for people who are in as long and intense a game as those big companies have been playing in the marketplace. I think weve shaken things up a little bit in a market that was seen to be well established and predictable, so it will take time for those companies to take a view on how they feel about the changes that were bringing about.

What do you think of the Apple OS and hardware? Are they the standard of quality for open source and Ubuntu in terms of matching their ease of use and eloquence of design? In many cases, Apple has set the pace. I can think of cases where its free software that has set the pace. The Mozilla Firefox browser is a great example of what happens when you get a small team that has good raw materials and they just relentlessly focus on making something thats a joy to use. Its a combination of simplicity and extensibility that gives you the ability to produce something that is both easy to use for a first-time user and powerful for someone who sits in front of a browser every day, all day.

What do you think is the next big thing in Linux where Ubuntu can make even more waves? We think that virtualization is one of the most exciting things happening in Linux today, and were trying to incorporate the most exciting and mature technologies cleanly into Ubuntu.

What are you most passionate about in your work? Tidal waves. Im fascinated by things that sweep through society and then change everything that they touch in different ways. The Internet itself was the first big tidal wave that I could actually witness. I guess I also saw desktop computing as a kid, but I didnt really have much of a perspective on it. But watching the Internet sweep through society, changing the way my mother worked, changing the way businesses worked, changing the way people designed products and so on, has been amazing. I wanted a project there that was right on the cutting edge of it.

Free software is part of a broader phenomenon, which is a shift toward recognizing the value of shared work. Historically, shared stuff had a very bad name. The reputation was that people always abused shared things, and in the physical world, something that is shared and abused becomes worthless. In the digital world, I think we have the inverse effect, where something that is shared can become more valuable than something that is closely held, as long as it is both shared and contributed to by everybody who is sharing in it.

Thats a fascinating concept, and I think its going to touch many industries. Software is the first. To be part of that is entirely another tidal wave.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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