Mark Shuttleworth: ‘Ubuntu keeps GNU/Linux relevant’

Ubuntu founder discusses the importance of Ubuntu and why he’s dedicated much of his life toward it

mark shuttleworth ubuntu
Credit: Wikipedia

In my ongoing quest to interview the leadership of every Linux distribution on the planet (see my interviews with the heads of elementary, Fedora and openSUSE) I reached out to the top dog in the Ubuntu world: Mark Shuttleworth.

This is not a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred sort of interview. It’s just a casual chat to hear about Ubuntu from the guy that started it and hopefully, in the process, get to know him a little better.

What follows are his unedited answers. I have some opinions (both good and bad) about Mark's answers—and I expect most of you will, too. But I'm going to keep them to myself here. I'll let his answers speak for themselves without much commentary from me.

Bryan: Canonical (and Ubuntu) has a lot going on. How would you explain what you’re building in as short a way as possible?

Mark Shuttleworth: “We enable developers across the spectrum, from giant cloud services like Netflix to focused private clouds such as those the telco industry is spinning up to power their exchanges, from diverse desktop environments to specialized devices like switches or weather stations. All of the pieces we contribute to the free software stack are focused on developers and operations.

MaaS (metal as a service) makes it easy to run the physical data center in a completely automated fashion. Juju enables people to collaborate on operations as code. Snappy enables very precise operations for distributed devices like IoT or home routers. Unity gives developers the ability to work on whatever form factor they like in a free software platform.”

Bryan: What does the average day of a “Self Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life” look like within Ubuntu? Do you find that as Canonical and Ubuntu have grown, you've been able to stay as actively involved in the day-to-day stuff?

Mark: “The great success of Ubuntu is that we have given many people the opportunity to lead the pieces they are best qualified to lead. We’re not a democracy; we actively pick people and councils to take decisions that make sense to the experts in a particular area. That makes us more likely to take difficult and unpopular, but ultimately correct, decisions. It also means my main responsibility is to resolve creative tensions where they occur or unblock decisions that are stuck between equally affected groups. It’s a job that is only possible because we have so many people pursuing their passions and their goals under one big umbrella.”

Bryan: Why Ubuntu? What is it about this project that has caused you, personally, to dedicate so much of your life to it?

Mark: “What else could I do that would unlock as much engineering creativity around the world? Funding a specific project advances one idea; enabling a platform for everybody advances huge swathes of technology and entrepreneurship.”

 Bryan: With all of the pots Canonical has on the fire—phones and desktops and servers and things—what is the one project that gets you, personally, the most excited? What's the one thing that you work on that puts the biggest smile on your face?

Mark: “Snappy! I think it will be useful for a huge portion of our users and developers, enabling them to go much faster both for publishing apps to the world and shipping apps to their personal servers/clouds/desktops. And it really solves a lot of problems for IoT, which is a fun domain right now.”

Bryan: Some years back, the Linux world became obsessed with visual effects on our desktops. Projects like Beryl and Compiz brought us virtual desktops on 3D cubes and windows that wobbled as we moved them around our screens (and burst into flames when we closed them). Since then, most desktop environments and distributions have backed away from those effects quite a lot. My question for you is simple: Are there any of those (admittedly, quite over the top) visual effects that you miss and secretly wish would make a comeback?

Mark: “I have enough things that wobble in the mirror these days, thank you.”

Bryan: Total hypothetical. Let's say you never started Canonical and Ubuntu. Maybe you started a boutique shoe store or a dog grooming business or something. What operating system would you be running? If a Linux-based system, which one?

Mark: “If Ubuntu did not exist and I wanted to use Linux, I would use ChromeOS. I think without Ubuntu, it would be very difficult to use traditional Linux every day—not just Ubuntu as I enjoy it, but it's full family of derivatives and the impact it has every day on Debian and competing distributions, essentially keep GNU/Linux relevant for the desktop and power developer.”

Bryan: What is your favorite joke that you heard in space?

Mark: “We laughed a lot but I don't remember any particular joke. I am, however, quoted in a little black book that very unofficially documents some amazingly stupid things people have said in space. In my case, I think I was live on CNN and said, 'If I look between my legs, I can see Japan.’” <facepalm>

Bryan: As a follow-up to your statement of “the impact Ubuntu has every day on Debian and competing distributions, essentially keep GNU/Linux relevant for the desktop and power developer,” I'm curious what impact, from your viewpoint, Ubuntu has had on some of the primary competing Linux distributions (openSUSE, Fedora, etc.). It looks like you're stating that without Ubuntu, the other existing Linux distributions would not be usable. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a few people might disagree with that standpoint. :)

Mark: “You know, opinions!”

At this point the interview was cut short because Mark said he ran out of time. Hopefully I'll get a chance to talk to him again, in the near future, to dive a little deeper into some of his answers. Some of them definitely warrant some clarification and additional discussion.

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