A Software Populist Who Doesn't Do Windows

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A Software Populist Who Doesn’t Do Windows
New York Times January 11, 2009
THEY’RE either hapless pests or the very people capable of overthrowing
Windows. Take your pick.
In December, hundreds of these controversial software developers gathered
for one week at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They came
from all over the world, sporting many of the usual signs of software
mercenaries: jeans, ponytails, unruly facial hair and bloodshot eyes.
But rather than preparing to code for the highest bidder, the developers
were coordinating their largely volunteer effort to try to undermine
Microsoft’s Windows operating system for PCs, which generated close to $17
billion in sales last year.
All the fuss at the meeting centered on something called Ubuntu and a man
named Mark Shuttleworth, the charismatic 35-year-old billionaire from South
Africa who functions as the spiritual and financial leader of this coding
Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-
BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of
the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through
its low, low
price: $0.
More than 10 million people are estimated to run Ubuntu today, and they
represent a threat to Microsoft’s hegemony in developed countries and
perhaps even more so in those regions catching up to the technology
“If we’re successful, we would fundamentally change the operating system
market,” Mr. Shuttleworth said during a break at the gathering, the Ubuntu
Developer Summit.
“Microsoft would need to adapt, and I don’t think that would be unhealthy.”
Linux is free, but there is still money to be made for businesses flanking
the operating system. Companies like I.B.M., Hewlett-Packard and Dell place
Linux on more than 10 percent of the computers they sell as servers, and
businesses pay the hardware makers and others, like the software sellers Red
Hat and Oracle, to fix any problems and keep their Linux-based systems up to
But Canonical, Mr. Shuttleworth’s company that makes Ubuntu, has decided to
focus its near-term aspirations on the PCs used by workers and people at
The notion of a strong Linux-based competitor to Windows and, to a lesser
extent, Apple’s Mac OS X has been an enduring dream of advocates of
open-source software.
They champion the idea that software that can be freely altered by the
masses can prove cheaper and better than proprietary code produced by stodgy
corporations. Try as they might, however, Linux zealots have failed in their
quest to make Linux mainstream on desktop and notebook computers. The often
quirky software remains in the realm of geeks, not grandmothers.
With Ubuntu, the devotees believe, things might finally be different.
“I think Ubuntu has captured people’s imaginations around the Linux
desktop,” said Chris DiBona, the program manager for open-source software at
Google. “If there is a hope for the Linux desktop, it would be them.”
Close to half of Google’s 20,000 employees use a slightly modified version
of Ubuntu, playfully called Goobuntu.
PEOPLE encountering Ubuntu for the first time will find it very similar to
Windows. The operating system has a slick graphical interface, familiar
menus and all the common desktop software: a Web browser, an e-mail program,
instant-messaging software and a free suite of programs for creating
documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
While relatively easy to use for the technologically savvy, Ubuntu – and all
other versions of Linux – can challenge the average user. Linux cannot run
many applications created for Windows, including some of the most popular
games and tax software, for example. And updates to Linux can send ripples
of problems through the system, causing something as basic as a computer’s
display or sound system to malfunction.
Canonical has tried to smooth out many of the issues that have prevented
Linux from reaching the mainstream.
This attention to detail with a desktop version of Linux contrasts with the
focus of the largest sellers of the operating system, Red Hat and Novell.
While these companies make desktop versions, they have spent most of their
time chasing the big money in data centers. As a result, Ubuntu emerged as a
sort of favored nation for those idealistic software developers who viewed
themselves as part of a countercultural movement.
“It is the same thing companies like Apple and Google have done well, which
is build not just a community but a passionate community,” said Ian Murdock,
who created an earlier version of Linux called Debian, on which Ubuntu is
Mainstream technology companies have taken notice of the enthusiasm around
Ubuntu. Dell started to sell PCs and desktops with the software in 2007, and
I.B.M. more recently began making Ubuntu the basis of a software package
that competes against Windows.
Canonical, based in London, has more than 200 full-time employees, but its
total work force stretches well beyond that, through an army of volunteers.
The company paid for close to 60 volunteers to attend its developer event,
considering them important contributors to the operating system. An
additional 1,000 work on the Debian project and make their software
available to Canonical, while 5,000 spread information about Ubuntu on the
Internet. And 38,000 have signed up to translate the software into different
When a new version of the operating system becomes available, Ubuntu
devotees pile onto the Internet, often crippling Web sites that distribute
the software. And hu ndreds of other organizations, mostly universities, also
help in the distribution.
The technology research firm IDC estimates that 11 percent of American
businesses have systems based on Ubuntu. That said, many of the largest
Ubuntu customers have cropped up in Europe, where Microsoft’s dominance has
endured intense regulatory and political scrutiny.
The Macedonian education department relies on Ubuntu, providing 180,000
copies of the operating system to children, while the Spanish school system
has 195,000 Ubuntu desktops. In France, the National Assembly and the
Gendarmerie Nationale, the military police force, rely on Ubuntu for a
combined 80,000 PCs. “The word ‘free’ was very important,” said Rudy Salles,
vice president of the assembly, noting that it allowed the legislature to
abandon Microsoft.
Without question, Ubuntu’s rapid rise has been aided by the fervor
surrounding Linux. But it’s Mr. Shuttleworth and his flashy lifestyle that
generate much of the attention Ubuntu receives. While he favors casual
attire matching the developers’, some of his activities, including a trip to
space, are hardly ordinary.
“Look, I have a very privileged life, right?” Mr.
Shuttleworth said. “I am a billionaire, bachelor, ex- cosmonaut. Life
couldn’t easily be that much better.
Being a Linux geek sort of brings balance to the force.”
The first installment of Mr. Shuttleworth’s fortune arrived after he
graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1995 with a business degree.
He had been paying bills by operating a small technology consulting company,
setting up Linux servers for companies to run their Web sites and other
basic operations. His business leanings and technology background inspired
him to try to capitalize on the rising interest in the Internet.
“I’m more of an academic than a cut-and-thrust wheeler- dealer,” he said. “I
was very interested in how the Internet was changing commerce and was
determined to pursue it.”
Mr. Shuttleworth decided to start a company called Thawte Consulting
(pronounced like “thought”) in 1995 that provided digital certificates, a
security mechanism that browsers use to verify the identity of companies.
As a 23-year-old, he visited Netscape to promote a broad standard for these
certificates. Netscape, then the leading browser maker, bought into it, and
Microsoft, which makes the Internet Explorer browser, followed.
As dot-com mania surged, companies became interested in this profitable
outfit, based in South Africa. In 1999, VeriSign, which manages a number of
Internet infrastructure services, bought Thawte for $575 million.
(Mr. Shuttleworth had turned down an offer of $100 million a few months
Having owned all of Thawte, Mr. Shuttleworth, the son of a surgeon and a
kindergarten teacher, became very wealthy at just 26.
So what’s a newly minted millionaire to do? Mr.
Shuttleworth looked to the stars. Paying an estimated $20 million to Russian
officials, he secured a 10-day trip to space and the International Space
Station on the Soyuz TM-34 in 2002 and became the first “Afronaut,” as the
press described him.
“After selling the company, it wasn’t a blowout yachts and blondes
situation,” he said. “It was very clear that I was in a unique situation
where I should choose to do things that were not possible otherwise.”
In the following years, Mr. Shuttleworth set up venture capital and
charitable organizations. Through investments in the United States, Africa
and Europe, he says, he has amassed a fortune of more than $1 billion.
He spends 90 percent of his time, however, working on Canonical, which he
considers another project that challenges what’s possible.
“I have done well with investing, but it has never felt very fulfilling,” he
said. “I fear getting to the end of my life and feeling you haven’t actually
built something. And to do something people thought was impossible is
CANONICAL’S model makes turning a profit difficult.
Many open-source companies give away a free version of their software that
has some limitations, while selling a full-fledged version along with
complementary services for keeping the software up to date. Canonical gives
away everything, including its top product, then hopes that companies will
still turn to it for services like managing large groups of servers and
desktops instead of handling everything themselves with in-house experts.
Canonical also receives revenue from companies like Dell that ship computers
with Ubuntu and work with it on software engineering projects like adding
Linux-based features to laptops. All told, Canonical’s annual revenue is
creeping toward $30 million, Mr. Shuttleworth said.
That figure won’t worry Microsoft.
But Mr. Shuttleworth contends that $30 million a year is self-sustaining
revenue, just what he needs to finance regular Ubuntu updates. And a free
operating system that pays for itself, he says, could change how people view
and use the software they touch everyday.
“Are we creating world peace or fundamentally changing the world? No,” he
said. “But we could shift what people expect and the amount of innovation
per dollar they expect.”
Microsoft had an estimated 10,000 people working on Vista, its newest
desktop operating system, for five years. The result of this
multibillion-dollar investment has been a product late to market and widely
Canonical, meanwhile, releases a fresh version of Ubuntu every six months,
adding features that capitalize on the latest advances from developers and
component makers like Intel. The company’s model centers on outpacing
Microsoft on both price and features aimed at new markets.
“It feels pretty clear to me that the open process produces better stuff,”
Mr. Shuttleworth said. Such talk from a man willing to finance software for
the masses – and by the masses – inspires those who see open source as more
of a cause than a business model.
In his spare time, Agostino Russo, for example, who works for a hedge fund
at Moore Europe Capital Management in London, created a program called Wubi
that allows Ubuntu to be installed on computers running Windows.
“I always thought that open source is a very important socioeconomic
movement,” Mr. Russo said.
Ultimately, however, parts of Mr. Shuttleworth’s venture continue to look
quixotic. Linux remains rough around the edges, and Canonical’s business
model seems more like charity than the next great business story. And even
if the open Ubuntu proves a raging success, the operating system will
largely be used to reach proprietary online services from Microsoft, Yahoo,
Google and others.
“Mark is very genuine and fundamentally believes in open source,” said Matt
Asay, a commentator on open-source technology and an executive at the
software maker Alfresco. “But I think he’s going to have a crisis of faith
at some point.”
Mr. Asay wonders if Canonical can sustain its “give everything away” model
and “always open” ideology.
Canonical shows no signs of slowing down or changing course anytime soon.
“We already have a sense of where we need to compete with Windows,” Mr.
Shuttleworth said. “Now the question is if we can create something that is
stylish and stunning.”
In his personal life, he continues to test what is possible, requesting that
a fiber-optic connection be installed to his house on the border of London’s
affluent Chelsea and South Kensington neighborhoods.
“I want to find out what it’s like to have a gigabit connection to the
home,” he said. “It is not because I need to watch porn in high-definition
but because I want to see what you do differently.”
He says Canonical is not just a do-gooder project by someone with the time,
money and inclination to tackle Microsoft head-on. His vision is to make
Ubuntu the standard for the next couple of billion people who acquire PCs.
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About Donna Jodhan

Donna Jodhan is an award winning blind author, advocate, sight loss coach, blogger, podcast commentator, and accessibility specialist.
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