Even the sky's no limit for open source hero, Shuttleworth

Astronaut, entrepreneur and founder of popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu -- Mark Shuttleworth is in Sydney this week for the Ubuntu Down Under conference. He was also one of the speakers at Linux.conf last week and took some time out with LinuxWorld to discuss life, the universe and everything open source.

Mark Shuttleworth

Ubuntu has received quite a lot of positive press, what do you think of this?

Yeah, we seem to have really struck a cord with people. I wouldn't have expected at this early stage to be so widely reviewed and tested and have had such a positive reaction from the community. I guess that's partly because we're building on the very solid foundation of Debian and it is very popular, and also because we're taking it in a whole new direction which has really struck a cord with people.

How have you been able to so successfully win over Debian enthusiasts?

I think they recognise that Ubuntu embodies all of the things that Debian embodies. It's committed to being free. All of the applications are free software applications. It's committed to the open source process, so the way we develop is very much the same way that Debian has grown up and the same way that many other community-driven distributions work, in the sense that all of the decisions are made online in e-mail and in forums so that all people can participate. Our conferences are all very open, so I guess it feels like a very familiar place for people comfortable in a Debian environment. When they come over, they recognise the places and faces and tools. But they also recognise that we have a bit more freedom than Debian in terms of making compromises to get our release out in terms of choosing specific applications and specific architectures. One of the great things about Debian is that it stretches across all architectures and tries to cover every piece of software in the open source world. While we retain all of that, we do differentiate and choose favourites. And that means we can be slightly more efficient in terms of getting it down and getting it out there.

And it's all going well?

It's going ballistic. It's incredible. Just in terms of numbers of users, reviews, feedback, bugs fixed by community members... we've really surprised ourselves at the pace that it has taken off.

Approximately, how many users are there?

We've shipped well over a million CDs of the most recent release.

What's next for Ubuntu?

The next release, breezy badger is due out in October and the big focus there will be taking our laptop support focus to levels that I think will rival Windows. We want to make it almost guaranteed that if you buy a laptop in the store, it will just work with Ubuntu.

We're also teaming up with the LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) guys to make sure that Ubuntu works really well in a lab or school environment where you have 20 or 30 computers that you'll be using almost as terminals and you'll be able to effectively install Ubuntu just once on one computer and then get it all out over the campus. The LTSP guys are hugely excited about integrating their work deeply with Ubuntu so that whichever operating system you prefer you can stick whatever you want on the server and still use the Ubuntu management process.

Talking about schools, could you talk a little about the SchoolTool project and what it is about?

SchoolTool is about writing a free open source platform for educational institutions and school administration. Schools and education is one area that I put a lot of work into, mainly in South Africa, but also all over the world.

One of the great things about working in the open source world is that people can take your work and use it in countries that you have never even dreamt of.

So the idea behind SchoolTool is that any school anywhere in the world can create, at no cost, a comprehensive administration infrastructure for itself. We're approaching a version 1.0 release date for that which will include timetabling and calendaring. That means that every kid in the school can get their own personal calendar and they can share that with friends. We don't yet have the ability to automatically generate timetables, that's a very complicated problem, but we have the ability to pass the schools' existing timetable out through the calendars, so the guys can see when they are supposed to be where and whether they have any conflicts between events. It will also handle things like attendance tracking.

What role do you think open source can play in schools and education both in an administrative framework and in a broader sense?

I would start on the business administration end of things. The reason I started funding SchoolTool is that in places like South Africa where schools are poorer, the real differentiator between successful schools and non-successful ones has more to do with the degree of organisation, than with the resources that they have. It has more to do with whether everyone is where they are supposed to be and whether everyone even knows where they are supposed to be. So, if we can get SchoolTool to the point that it becomes a like universal SAP offering for schools effectively − and by schools, I mean from primary schools all the way up to colleges and universities − then that would be a tremendous accomplishment.

In terms of the actual teaching process and experience, there is no doubt to me that if you want to go out in the world as a technology professional, you are far better off if you have been trained (or you have trained yourself) on an open source platform than on traditional proprietary software. I see it in the quality of people that I interview for jobs, as well as people I meet in the schools. The guys who are working off an open source base have a far deeper and richer insight into what is going on in the technology world. The open source platform is a perfect one for learning because you can dive as deep as you like. If you want to just use the tech tools, that's fine. If you want to see how the tools are written, that's great too. If you want to see the tool chain that compiles the tools that are written, you can see that as well. There's no constraint on how much you are able to learn.

When I was at school, we didn't have open source in the same kind of way and so you might read about tools, or computer languages but you couldn't use them unless you could afford to buy the compilers or the development environment for that computer language. In an open source world, you can use whatever language you are interested in, from Smalltalk to C++, objective C, Ada or something else. You'll find all of those languages represented in the open source world and no barrier to how much or little of those that you can teach yourself.

Where are you at in terms of employing people? How many do you employ currently and are you seeking any more?

My main corporate focus at the moment is Canonical and Ubuntu and we currently employ 40 people around the globe, quite a few of which are Australians. Mainly out of Sydney and also some from Canberra. I've found that there is a really strong talent pool here in Australia around open source, so that's been very encouraging. That's part of the reason we're having the conference here.

In terms of the skills profile, I look for people that both understand open source technology and open source mindset, but I also look for people that are driven and self-motivated. This kind of work is quite challenging because there are no office hours; there's no clear break between office hours and home hours. You're working from home, telecommuting. So I find that it's quite challenging for people to be both maverick, in the sense that anybody involved in open source is, and disciplined at the same time. Those people are very, very rare.

As a successful entrepreneur, can you offer any advice to people wanting to start their own open source project?

The first thing I would say, is do something that you are personally very interested in, and don't just scratch somebody else's itch.

That said, participating in other people's projects is a great way to get a sense of what makes a good project and what makes a bad project. But if you really want to build your own community and build your own project which might turn into a product which might turn into a business, more than anything you need to start with something that personally interests you, no matter how obscure, because you will find others out there that share your interest.

Number two, I would say, release early; release often. Make sure that everything you do is transparent. From the very beginning, give people a clear idea of where you are going with the project and give them the opportunity to participate from the start.

But the last thing I would say is don't expect people to participate until you've produced something interesting and useful. The open source world is slightly merciless in the sense that people will only use what works for them and they are not interested in the bits that don't. Until you produce something of quality that surprises people with its functionality, you won't get community participation.

As you were growing up, what got you interested in technology?

Games. As a kid we had a BBC Micro, which was a computer that had 32KB of RAM, which was considered a huge amount at the time. The games that I played on that were games like Elite, and Striker, and what was fantastic about the Beeb was that it was simple enough that a young kid could actually really get below the hood and figure out how it worked and what was going on in the minds of the software developers, so it was a very fortunate time to be growing up and first exposed to computers because the computers themselves were simple enough to figure out.

We lost that for a while. Kids growing up in the 90s were faced with this sort of proprietary complicated environment driven by Windows.

Now we are seeing a resurge of that tinker tailor mentality because of open source.

But I think the truth is that you are either born a geek or you're not. You're either fascinated by these things or you're not. You're either totally curious as to how these things work or you're not. I was, for better or worse, just one of those kids that was.

Were you born an astronaut too? When did you decide you wanted to go to space?

When I was about six years old. I've always been fascinated by science generally, and space is part of science. When you look up at a sky that is full of stars you can't help but wonder what it's like up there and want to go and explore it.

So to be part of that was an incredible privilege.

Can you explain in a few sentences what the experience was like, or is that asking the impossible?

I wish I could. I'll try. I'd say that the whole experience was far more than just the 10 days in space. Going to Russia, learning the Russian language and culture. That was in itself a very rewarding experience. The negotiations involved, as a kid of 27, negotiating with the Russian space agency and 20 other organisations from the ex-soviet union, that was quite an experience as well and I learnt a lot from it.

Spending eight months in Star City, training for the flight, learning about the spaceship, learning about the international space station, all of the emergency procedures, some of the mathematics you need to figure out what you are doing, learning how to fly a spaceship. That whole process and the physical training required. Those were all very cool for a geek.

Then the flight itself was just unbelievable.

You have the apprehension and terror the day before, you have that extraordinary feeling of being at the centre of this vast machine of thousands of people whose sole job is to ensure that that capsule makes it to the space station and back. I'll never forget that feeling of being taken in this little bus across a bumpy dirt road up to the base of this launch pad of this huge rocket towering above you and then getting into this rusty old gantry and going right to the top of it and spending time strapping ourselves in and then the incredible exhilaration of the launch itself. The violence of it, and then 10 utterly blissful days in space working and playing and just enjoying the view of the earth. All of it is just mind-blowing and a great privilege.

Cool. You've sold me. Would you do it again?

I'd love to do it again actually! My astronaut friends say I'm crazy spending all my time on open source software. I should just stay in Star City and buy regular flights. But I sort of feel I need to earn and deserve the opportunity again.

Do you have any other crazy unfulfilled dreams?

Well, there are plenty of crazy unfulfilled dreams, but I've learnt that its best to keep my big mouth shut.

What about in terms of technology projects. Any new ones on the horizon?

The great thing about the Ubuntu project is that there is an entire universe of software to play with. So yeah, I have fairly strong ideas on things I would like to see in the content management space, in the application space, the kernel, software on appliances and embedded devices. Ubuntu is a great playground for that because it is an entire stack, you've got the operating system and all the applications, and you have them under these incredible open source licences where you can mould them and shape them to give them new energy and new direction. So Ubuntu remains my focus because it's a platform, but the reason for doing it is that it's a platform that I think is so successful that we can go on to transform any aspect of the software industry. So I think we'll be seeing a bit more of that in the next year or two.

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Dahna McConnachie

LinuxWorld

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