Founder of Ubuntu Linux Mark Shuttleworth took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about email, productivity, travel, web applications, Ubuntu, free software and much more. We asked Shuttleworth what you wanted to know and he gave us the full scoop. Hit the jump for the full interview transcript.
Lifehacker: Describe your typical day. What do you spend most of your time doing?
Mark Shuttleworth: That depends—it varies usually. If I'm in London then it's a very straight-forward day. I get up, usually do a bit of exercising, and then head to the office to finish work [...] I can't stand commuting. I work till plenty late in the evening and then head home. I don't go out a lot on school nights, and when I'm traveling it's a lot more interesting. I have a fairly tight schedule with meetings and I travel quite intensively—sometimes for a couple weeks at a stretch. [When I return home] it's a rush to keep up on email.
Lifehacker: How much time would you say you spend in London versus Africa?
Mark Shuttleworth: I'm in London probably just over half of the time—it varies from year to year.
Lifehacker: Do you ever travel to the United States?
Mark Shuttleworth: Yes, I was in the States just six weeks ago. I spent two lovely weeks in Oregon. One week in Eugene for a company strategy meeting where we brought all of our guys together from around the world to talk our position through and see where we want to go. I spent the other week in Portland for Ubuntu Live and OSCON.
Lifehacker: Please describe your personal productivity system. What version of Ubuntu are you using and what applications are part of your daily routine?
Mark Shuttleworth: I am running Gutsy, which is the current development version that will be released in October, and I use Thunderbird heavily. For me it's a better email system then Evolution. Since I travel so often, I use it in online/offline mode so I always have access to critical email. I do quite a bit of work offline, on trains and planes and when I don't have Internet access. I'm really looking forward to WiMAX so I can be connected more of the time when I'm on the road.
Lifehacker: Do you use any other third-party applications that are not included in the default Ubuntu installation?
Mark Shuttleworth: I'm a fan of Gobby, which is a collaborative text editor. For the rest, I use the standard stuff. I use Gaim [Ed: now Pidgin] for instant messaging and group chats.
Lifehacker: How do you manage your to-do list, calendar, and email?
Mark Shuttleworth: Most of that happens in my inbox—I don't have a separate to-do list. That way I can keep everything in one place.
Lifehacker: Do you spend any time with web applications?
Mark Shuttleworth: I use the Google infrastructure quite heavily.
Lifehacker: Do you think web applications will affect the Linux desktop in the future?
Mark Shuttleworth: Yeah, I think we're seeing interesting ideas around blurring the line between the web and applications. Although at this stage the pendulum's still very heavily swinging toward a web-centric view of the world.
Lifehacker: Do you think we'll ever get to the point when the Linux desktop is nothing more than a terminal used to connect to the web?
Mark Shuttleworth: No, I don't think so. I think you can give people a richer experience though a client application then you can just through the web. Again, I think the emphasis tends to swing like a pendulum. We went from green screen terminals to rich clients and then we went back to the web. In due course, I think balance will be restored. You can do some interesting things...For example, I export my Google calendar into Evolution and that means I have access to my calendar offline. Automatically from the desktop with just a single click I can see what I have going on at any given day. That works online and offline and automatically synchronizes itself. There are some interesting ways to bring the two worlds together.
Lifehacker: You mentioned Google Calendar. Are you also a Gmail user?
Mark Shuttleworth: Yes, but not very heavily. I have an email address, but I prefer to access my email offline so I'm not a particularly heavy user.
Lifehacker: The Lifehacker readers are a mixed group of highly competent power users that primarily use Windows and Mac. What argument would you use to persuade users who have never used Ubuntu to dive in for the first time?
Mark Shuttleworth: Well, you described them as power users so they're people who are familiar with using different tools to get the job done. Using the right tool for the job is a strong mantra—I'm a big fan of that approach. If you're responsible for the IT of other people you always need to know what the right tools are to get a particular job done. The best way to do that is to make sure you are familiar with those different sets of tools. Anyone who is a power user really should be familiar with Linux because it is emerging as a very powerful set of tools. On the back-end of the computing world we see a steady pattern of great companies being built entirely around free software infrastructure—for example, Google, Amazon and eBay. On the front-end we're increasingly starting to see companies using free software like Linux and Ubuntu to do interesting things in call centers and other large corporate deployments. From the developer's perspective it is amazing to have such an extraordinary depth of software that is instantly available at your fingertips. Anyone who fancies themselves a developer or as a creator of technology should be familiar with free software. And as a CIO it's good to know all of the tools you have access to.
Lifehacker: The deal with Dell was highly publicized. Looking back on the process, what worked well and what were some lessons learned?
Mark Shuttleworth: It was an interesting process that continues to unfold. We recently expanded the area that the deal covers to include parts of Europe. The most interesting part for us has been building a relationship with an organization as large as Dell, and working with them to figure out the processes that allow them to do the things that they're really good at while allowing us to do the thing we're really good at. There are some tricky issues where the hardware and software interfere with each other. We've learned a lot throughout the process. I would really credit the Dell guys for being willing to figure out how to do this in the best possible way. There's nothing quick and dirty about the approach they've taken. They are working to understand Linux and make sure what people get is a system that lives up to the expectations of a power user.
Lifehacker: It seems that pre-installed Linux computers are gaining momentum. Are there plans for partnering with other major corporations?
Mark Shuttleworth: Of course. There are discussions underway which I can't go into because they're not ready to be announced. The main thing is to recognize that Linux remains somewhat of a specialist's option. It is actually quite prevalent amongst the specialist providers. If you talk to any of the major system integrators they will all do Linux deployments for you. Even if you talk to some of the smaller OEMs they will all figure out how to work with you and to work with Linux. Where it has always been blocked is in the large-scale consumer market. I think Dell has been very clever in the way they've done it. They've figured out how to make Linux available to those consumers who are specifically looking for it without accidentally having folks who don't know what Linux is (and who don't really want Linux) accidentally buying those machines. That's critical to the economic viability of the offering.
Lifehacker: What do the Ubuntu faithful have to look forward to in the release following Gutsy, and has a name been decided upon?
Mark Shuttleworth: It has. The name will be the "Hardy Heron." We picked Hardy as the name because it will be the basis for our next long term supported release—which is one that is supported for at least five years on the server and three years on the desktop. It will have been two years since our previous LTS release. We think the upstream open source community has moved on to the point where there are really exciting new capabilities, features and functionalities—in particular for folks who are moving Ubuntu onto the server.
Lifehacker: You mentioned long-term support in the release cycle. Recently there have been some criticisms saying that the release cycle is too short. Obviously the six-month release cycle is drastically different than that used by commercial operating systems. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this compressed development cycle, and do you think as Ubuntu matures in the future you will stick with this six month cycle or will you extend it?
Mark Shuttleworth: To understand the Ubuntu release cycle you should think of two separate cycles that are superimposed onto one another. The first cycle is a regular six-month release, and we consider those releases production-ready. There are people who deploy them in the data center and there are people who deploy them in production, on desktops. They focus primarily on the integration of the latest cutting-edge stable code. These are all stable, upstream components that have security updates and fixes available for them and they are safe to deploy. The emphasis is on the fact that they really are current. Those are only supported for 18 months and we will only make maintenance changes and improvements to those releases for 18 months. Every four of those releases we designate as "LTS." This is the second cycle that is roughly a two-year process. You get a much longer maintenance commitment for those releases. This allows people to pick and choose. If they only want to stay on [operating systems] which are only going to be released every two or so years and supported for three to five years, then they can stick to the LTS releases. If they want to maintain a cutting-edge focus they will move from six-month release to six-month release. We do put a lot of emphasis on the upgrade process. You don't have to reinstall, you can simply upgrade. We're having increasingly good results with people who move from one release to the next.
Lifehacker: Does your mindset change with the releases that are deemed "LTS?" Are you more conservative when selecting which packages will be included?
Mark Shuttleworth: We are. The idea is that we have developed quite a good understanding of our ability to work with the upstreams and to choose for each [release] what the appropriate level of risk is if we move to newer versions. In an LTS release, we will typically include the latest version because we have a very good relationship with upstream and we have full confidence in our ability to deliver a really reliable desktop infrastructure even though it has relatively new code on it. For some of the other components we may take a more conservative view and stick with versions we had in previously releases because it is less imperative to move to new versions and there is a perceived greater risk in doing so. We also do modify the release cycle slightly. The last time we did this (which was with the last LTS), we stretched that release cycle so we could give ourselves extra time to get additional rounds of feedback. This time we'll probably do something different. We haven't finalized it yet, but the current theory is that we will make the normal six month release, we will allow that to bake and we will address any unexpected critical issues that arrive and then we'll put out a point release which we'll consider the LTS.
Lifehacker: Many Lifehacker readers have faced difficulties getting wireless and other hardware to function properly. What are the plans to improve hardware support in the future, and has the partnership with Dell had any immediate effects?
Mark Shuttleworth: The partnership with Dell has been beneficial for us and for every version of Linux because it has raised the profile of Linux in the consumer space. The component manufacturers who make everything from graphics cards through sound cards and network and wireless cards are increasingly aware of the fact that it's easier to sell to a company like Dell if they can say, "This will work in Linux and Windows." That is making it easier for us to work with the industry to make sure they have good Linux drivers. Not just for Ubuntu but for all versions of Linux.
Lifehacker: The readers have also commented that they are staying away from Linux because it is missing big name software packages—especially games. Is there a strategy to overcome this traditionally unconquerable Linux roadblock?
Mark Shuttleworth: Games are a particularly difficult thing to address on Linux. Obviously that's less of an issue in a corporate environment or amongst professional developers who may well have multiple computers and have a gaming machine for their own personal use separate from their development machine. It is not something we particularly want to address at this stage. That industry has very specific economics that we can't really influence. On the more traditional applications front, the existence of specific brands is less important than the existence of compatible, interoperable software implementations. It is encouraging to see that in many cases you can function on a completely free software desktop and still interoperate perfectly well with people who are used to using Windows. You can exchange documents, talk to them on the network and so on...
Lifehacker: Do you think some Linux users are dismissing Ubuntu as a fad or "Poster Child?" If so, do you think it's because it is so simple to install and use that it is being perceived as "for new users only?"
Mark Shuttleworth: That's interesting...we see the option of Ubuntu invite quite hardcore serious developers. We work very hard to build something that embodies ideas that those developers think are impressive. That doesn't mean that something needs to be super-complicated to install. There's a big difference between supporting really cutting-edge features—like the way we support virtualization in Ubuntu which I think makes it phenomenally easy for power users to experiment with Xen, KVM, and VMWare and get very good results. Those are very sophisticated power user features and we've worked hard on making them easy to use, easy to experiment and easy to install. I don't think those things are in conflict at all. In fact, it really helps power users to focus on the things they are trying to do rather than on installing and maintaining systems.
Lifehacker: I'd like to talk a little bit about Gobuntu. I think it has faced some criticism for lacking a realistic user-base. In your own words you had this to say: "Gobuntu will not correctly enable much hardware today—but it exists as a banner for the cause of software freedom and as a reference of what IS possible with a totally rigorous approach." Who do you envision benefiting from this flavor of Ubuntu and when do you think it will be a suitable distribution for widespread adoption?
Mark Shuttleworth: There are two things that Gobuntu gives us: the first is taking the idea of "freedom" beyond software and into things like the documentation, the media and the content that are increasingly associated with a Linux distribution, and the second is reminding people that there is still some way to go before we have completely open systems. There is a certain amount of closed infrastructure that goes on right at the heart of things: key drivers, firmware and so on. Just as in the old days just as it was a badge of honor to get Linux installed on your computer, it will become a badge of honor if you manage to get Gobuntu working. Everything that doesn't work under Gobuntu is an indication of a piece of work which is needed to make the free software world more complete. I think that's a useful reference point.
Lifehacker: What can a typical Linux or Ubuntu user do to help the open source movement? What can a Mac or Windows user who is unwilling to leave their operating system do?
Mark Shuttleworth: The first I would say is that free software is not necessarily an operating system choice. It is possible to run free software on both Mac and Windows. I would encourage people to start to experiment with that. Try Firefox and its derivatives, and try OpenOffice and its derivatives (I think NeoOffice is the name of the OpenOffice version for the Mac). In building familiarity with the free software world, you improve the general discussion about what is possible with free software, and you improve people's awareness of free software. I think it is really important to realize that if you see yourself as being a real IT professional and you're ambitious as an IT professional, Linux offers tremendous opportunities. First, people who are very familiar with Linux are paid more than people who are only familiar with Windows or Mac. Second, this is in fact measurable...Microsoft will tell you as much—one of their arguments against Linux is that people are expensive. The second thing you can do is participate in the community processes like translating or documenting so you can help [free software] reach a wider audience. Ultimately, I would say it's always useful to have people span communities because if you live only in one community then you often miss out on good opportunities which happen to have taken root somewhere else. We shouldn't dismiss good ideas just because they started in the proprietary world. It's good to have people in the free software world who are also very comfortable in the proprietary world.
Lifehacker: Thank you very much for taking the time today. Is there anything else you'd like to share with the Lifehacker readership?
Mark Shuttleworth: I hope folks take the time to try Linux and Ubuntu.