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Mark Shuttleworth talks Narwhals

Natty Narwhal (Ubuntu 11.04) removes GNOME, adds new kernel, and offers a major patch for scheduling processes. Mark Shuttleworth talks to Linux User about all this, Debian relations and the future of Ubuntu...

This article is due to appear in issue 99 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Mark Shuttleworth has been a busy man since last we spoke to him in 2009, but at least this time, he’s remained on Earth. The world’s second space tourist, Shuttleworth is the father of Ubuntu and founder of the company behind it, Canonical. Originally from South Africa, Shuttleworth currently resides in the UK, where he works both on Ubuntu and as a venture capitalist.

Shuttleworth has removed himself from running the day-to-day operations of Canonical, but he remains at the top of the Ubuntu food chain, where he wields supreme executive power over the code naming process. And on that topic, he even references T S Eliot on the naming of cats. As he wrote on his blog, when discussing the naming of Ubuntu 11.10, Oneiric Ocelot: “Oneiric means ‘dreamy’, and the combination with Ocelot reminds me of the way innovation happens: part daydream, part discipline.”

We caught up with Shuttleworth a couple of weeks ago to ask him about the various projects and events under the Ubuntu umbrella, and about the future of the platform as a whole.

We last spoke two years ago. What have been the biggest changes for Ubuntu since then?
Wow! Two years is a long time. That’s the time frame between LTS releases, so we get a lot of change in and stabilised over a two-year period.

On the Enterprise front, the biggest changes have been in cloud computing and virtualisation. We were the lead distribution to adopt KVM, and that’s now become an industry standard in Linux. Ubuntu has taken off on EC2 and Rackspace public clouds, where people are doing amazing innovation, and we’ve added some features just for cloud deployments that make it easier to keep your infrastructure in the cloud up to date and manageable. We also shipped the only free and open cloud infrastructure, which lets you create your own cloud with a few servers and the standard Ubuntu Server CD.
On the desktop front, we introduced Unity, the brand new desktop experience that is designed and tested for usability and efficiency. We will make that our default desktop in 11.04 this April, and we have an implementation both for high-end computers with OpenGL and for low-end computers where memory and graphics are less advanced, in Qt. By 12.04 LTS, that will be the only desktop experience in Ubuntu. We added support for touch and gestures, which is unique to Ubuntu, based on uTouch from Canonical.

How have your Enterprise customers been evolving and growing? What do they like about Ubuntu, and has that been a lucrative business for you?
Enterprise customers can use Ubuntu, with free security updates, without any support contract, so no it isn’t lucrative, but it’s growing quickly as companies who have deployed Ubuntu realise the advantages of having a relationship with us. We’ve solved a lot of thorny problems for customers, who are deploying Ubuntu on thousands of machines. We have a management solution that’s included in those relationships as well as providing assurances on copyright etc. So the customer list continues to grow steadily, mainly in Europe and the US.

Click the image to read Linux User's interview with Jane Silber

I know you’ve stepped back from a leadership role in Ubuntu. How are you adjusting to letting the OS develop without your oversight?
My role in Ubuntu hasn’t changed, but in Canonical Jane Silber took the CEO reins from me (thank you!) and I now lead product design and strategy.

How are relations with Debian at the moment?
Quantum mechanical – Debian is a collection of more than a thousand individuals, and each of them has a different relationship with Ubuntu, so I would describe our overall relationship as a wave function rather than a vector ;-). However, the good news is that I think the bulk of people concerned have found positive and constructive ways to work with each other, so we can say the probability density is highest in the ‘good’ part of the spectrum. That said, the wave function does have long tails; there are people who are unhappy with Ubuntu or have moments of unhappiness, and we try to address what we can and have a thick skin where we can’t.

Red Hat began signing its packages recently, in an attempt to maintain its revenue streams for enterprise Linux. What do you think of Red Hat’s situation?
I think the actual change was more about how they publish their source code – as a single lump rather than coherent changes. They still manage the changes internally as separate patches, but they only show that work to customers; everyone else just sees an opaque blob of code. It’s within their rights to do so – probably (there are debates about sharing code in the ‘preferred form for modification’) – but it’s been seen as a negative move by others. I think the rationale for them is that Oracle and Novell are using the patch flow to compete directly with Red Hat; I think that approach by Oracle and Novell is doomed to fail, so I wouldn’t have bothered with obscuring the work, myself.

What do you think of tablets?
I think they will be a serious form factor that’s widely used, alongside clamshell (keyboard/notebook) form factors, phones and TVs.

What about Android?
I like the model Google follows, I think Android itself is a bit of a lump, and I prefer the cleaner, component approach of the traditional Linux stack as we have it in Ubuntu. I think it’s great that free software is seeing such concentrated investment, and a pity that so many free software people are so critical of Google. If you look closely, you’ll see that each free software player has different constraints – different things are easy or hard for them. None of them are inherently more moral than the others – look at Red Hat’s kernel moves to which you alluded earlier. So it’s weird that we spend so much energy on belittling different company approaches, rather than just getting on and enjoying the fruits.

We know Ubuntu was planning on helping out MeeGo a few years ago. Has that effort fizzled out?
The MeeGo developers felt it was important to use the RPM format and moved off Ubuntu as a base, which gave us little to collaborate on. We wish them well.

What types of companies are you investing in right now?
Mainly companies that are helping to create sustainable economic development in Africa and other frontier markets. And companies that give software away 😉

Any plans for returning to space soon?
Not soon, no, but I would very much like to return. I feel I need to do something on Earth that I can be proud enough of to justify the great privilege of another orbital flight. And I’d like to go further, perhaps around the moon, or deeper into the solar system, than just repeating the experience of working on the ISS [International Space Station].

Finally, what’s the next big thing?
The internet, again!

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