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By | Ben King 25th July 2006 10:41

Ubuntu heads for the mainstream

Rogue distro goes commercial

Interview Mark Shuttleworth, millionaire cosmonaut and self-funded Linux guru, has managed to make his Ubuntu project the Linux distribution of choice in just two years. But now the friendly brown OS with the cute drumming noises faces an awkward journey towards the commercial mainstream.

Ubuntu has had quite a ride in those two years. By many benchmarks, it's the most popular Linux flavour there is. It's top of the Distrowatch download chart, and it's the distro most frequently installed on Dell PCs – according to Michael Dell himself.

But while it has achieved a certain mindshare among the initiated, it still hasn't quite broken through to the corporate server room, or the desktops of average Joes.

Mr Shuttleworth also has a distant intention, somewhere in the future, of recouping some of the $10m a year he funnels into Ubuntu, and trying to turn it into some kind of profitable business.

"We are in this delicate transition phase from being something that's entirely community orientated to something that has this professional wing. So that's something that we have to steer very carefully," he says.

In May, Ubuntu inked its first major server deal. Sun announced a deal with Shuttleworth's company, Canonical, that would make Ubuntu the only OS (other than Solaris) to be supported on Sun's UltraSPARC T1 processor chip.

Ubuntu has also started to appear pre-installed on PCs – from the Singapore-based company, Esys - which will be a crucial step in taking Ubuntu to people who don't have the skills to install it themselves.

Shuttleworth is now focusing his own attention away from the core business of building the distro, to improving some of the peripheral services which will make it a more professional operation.

"I now have confidence in the distro team to drive the distro without me, which means that I can spend more time on other aspects of the project and part of those are support operations, part of those are training operations, part of those is documentation," he says.

These are the elements which will help to establish Ubuntu as a viable alternative to Red Hat and SuSE for corporate customers. They're also things people pay for, so that might help to kickstart some kind of a revenue stream.

When it comes to actual usage figures, though, things are a little vague. A free product produces no sales figures. Shuttleworth has previously estimated the user base to be between 2m and 6m, but didn't want to volunteer an estimate to The Register. Instead, he points to Google trends, which records how many searches users have been making for the word "Ubuntu".

As the chart shows, Ubuntu has been seeing a steady growth of interest, and a strong peak in June, following the release of the latest version, 6.06 "Dapper Drake", and the Sun announcement.

Ubuntu is now receiving more than half as many searches as Vista, which would certainly be impressive if it translated directly to the user base. But, of course, life isn't that simple.

It's almost like a late '90s dot-com business plan – stand in front of a slide of any random upwardly-curving graph, and invite your audience to assume that your revenues/profits/share price/yacht fund will adopt the same pattern.

Google Trends is particularly unscientific. Many of those Vista searchers may be looking for beautiful views, and the Ubuntu seekers may be investigating the founding principles of post-apartheid South Africa.

"My interpretation of that is that our documentation sucks so badly that people have to search a lot..." jokes Shuttleworth.

Nonetheless, he feels he is backing a winner. "It will take me time to get this business to profitability," he concedes. But he still feels that Linux is the right horse to back. "I don't see any downward trend there. I see Linux continuing to grow."

Of course, Shuttleworth has no VC backers or shareholders to account to – with a £400m liquidity event already under his belt, he only has to please himself.

Of course, that's not strictly true – the Ubuntu project owes its success to the developers who put the project together, largely on a voluntary basis.

So keeping them onside and involved while Ubuntu makes the transition from underground distro to viable commercial operation will be a difficult but crucial task.

"One of the really interesting questions we got when we made the Sun announcement was, do you think it will hurt your community credentials if you start working with Sun, IBM, HP and so on?

"So it is very important to our business model that that not be the case. Because much of the value of Ubuntu lies in the fact that it's collaboratively produced with the community."

Shuttleworth's success in sustaining that community is as much down to his own laid-back charisma as it is to his deep pockets. But the corporate world has a way of sucking that out of people and communities. Balancing the needs of paying customers with the freewheeling spirit of an open source pioneer won't be easy.

Of course, Ubuntu does have one corporate user. A very high profile one, in fact – Google. So what about Goobuntu, the mysterious Linux distribution based on Ubuntu, currently spotted only inside the Googleplex?

"Goobuntu is simply their internal desktop platform. Obviously Linux makes sense for them. Their developers love it, they have plenty of expertise to manage it, and Goobuntu is the chosen platform for their developers. But there is a big difference between that and working on something that you are going to productise and ship out to the world," says Shuttleworth.

So we won't get our hands on Goobuntu any time soon?

"I don't see any indication at this stage that that is a real plan. They wouldn't have to tell me of course. The nature of free software is that they could complete a plan like that, develop it and execute it without us knowing."

Intriguing. Anyone hoping for the arrival of the longed-for Google OS shouldn't hold their breath. But the progress of Ubuntu will be well worth watching in the meantime.

Bootnote

In a feeble attempt to curry favour with the readership, Mr Shuttleworth claimed that he is an avid Register reader. He also revealed that he has some peculiar features in common with the Register's Otto Z Stern: "My prostate is made of opal – that story cracked me up," he confided. We believe this medical precaution is required for all amateur cosmonauts.

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