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Chrome nearly replaced Firefox in Ubuntu Linux, Mark Shuttleworth says

Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth lavishes praise on Google and the Chrome browser

By , Network World
June 13, 2011 04:46 PM ET
Mark Shuttleworth

Network World - Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth is a big fan of Google Chrome, and says the browser could replace the standard Firefox in future versions of Ubuntu Linux.

Shuttleworth, the onetime space tourist, is spending his days on Earth to guide Canonical through a crossroads.

The overhauled user interface Canonical created for Ubuntu was greeted with a mixed reaction upon its release two months ago. But Canonical may not be done making radical changes to what is likely the world's most popular Linux desktop OS.

The South African Shuttleworth was visiting Canonical's Massachusetts office last week when he took an hour out of his day for a phone interview with Network World. Shuttleworth said "it's a real possibility" that Canonical may replace Firefox with Chrome as the default Web browser in Ubuntu.

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In fact, Shuttleworth says, "We looked at it closely in the last cycle and the decision was to stick with Firefox in 11.10."

11.10 is the next version of Ubuntu, to be released in October as part of Canonical's twice-a-year release cycle. Chrome probably won't replace Firefox in 12.04, due out in April 2012, either, because that will be the long-term support version, making it an unlikely candidate for major changes.

"That probably keeps us on Firefox for another year, at least, and we'll see from there," Shuttleworth said.

If that sounds like a wishy-washy answer, Shuttleworth also made it clear that he is a believer in the future of Chrome on Linux.

The work Google is doing with the Chrome operating system, which runs the Chrome browser on top of a generic version of Linux, "is having a hugely positive impact on the performance of Chrome on Linux," Shuttleworth said.

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"That's unusual," Shuttleworth said. "You don't often see that in a cross-platform project. We may well be in a position where Chrome on Ubuntu and Chrome on Linux is a better experience than Chrome on any other platform [i.e. Windows and Mac]."

Shuttleworth expressed further admiration for Google's commitment to a computing future based entirely on the Web.

"I think Chrome OS is sort of fascinating at many levels," he said. "Regardless of its ultimate level of adoption, the fact that it's such a clear statement of intent to make the Web the platform, and only the Web the platform, it will catalyze a lot of interesting thinking. From our perspective it becomes important to do the Web fantastically well and having Chrome and Firefox on Linux both be great is important." (See also: "Hackers get Ubuntu Linux booting alongside Google's Chrome OS")

Even if Chrome were to replace Firefox as the default browser, users who prefer Firefox could simply download it themselves, just as Chrome users must today. But switching Ubuntu's default to Chrome would be a major endorsement for a browser that has rapidly gained market share since its release in 2008.

While Canonical has impressed many by making Linux desktops usable for a wider range of non-technical people, the company is nowhere near the size of Google or, for that matter, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook.

All four of those companies are increasingly asking consumers to trust them with their personal data.

"It is a little scary," Shuttleworth said. "I think it is the question of our times, to be honest. All of the lines are being blurred between client platforms and the cloud."

When asked which company he'd trust the most as a holder of vast amounts of data, Shuttleworth put his chips with Google. Shuttleworth thinks the "do no evil" mantra Google was founded with is something most of its employees take seriously.

"I would still credit them with that very strong 'do no evil' mantra," he said. "I suspect the average Googler wants to feel good about that stuff more so than the average person at any of the other companies you mentioned [Apple, Microsoft and Facebook]. In the long run, that's what counts. I think that mantra was part of the key founding vision and it's probably important to most of the people who work there, and I don't think that's true of any of the others. Still, I expect they're all likely to screw up at one point or another."

The company's ethics will be important because "Google quite clearly is in a very powerful position with regard to data," Shuttleworth said. "They have supreme competence in handling lots of data."

Shuttleworth tackled a number of other topics related to Ubuntu, open source controversies, Microsoft and even the future of space travel in our interview. He even talked about why he may be one of the world's richest people who doesn't own a smartphone. Here are some highlights:

The Unity/GNOME controversy

As anyone who follows the Linux world knows, Ubuntu switched from the standard GNOME interface to its own Unity, creating a bit of tension between Canonical and GNOME developers. Both Unity and GNOME 3 use OpenGL to create a highly graphical, hopefully more intuitive interface.

"We see [Unity] as part of the GNOME project," Shuttleworth said. "That's certainly how we conceived it."

But, "We're now in a little bit of limbo because GNOME is having this internal debate over, do they want to have multiple interfaces or not? That leaves us in a very awkward position."

REVIEW: Ubuntu breaks from the Linux pack

Traditionally, Ubuntu has used the GNOME interface as a default, but shipped multiple versions so people could choose other options, such as KDE. Canonical is working to get GNOME 3 -- or whatever comes after -- into future releases of Ubuntu so that people will have that choice again, Shuttleworth said. Today, people who prefer GNOME 3 can switch to Red Hat's Fedora.

Unity itself is plagued with a few problems. For one thing, it requires OpenGL-capable hardware. That improves the desktop experience, but users with older machines are pushed back to the old GNOME 2 interface.

The next step is letting users with older hardware use the Unity interface in a "2D" environment, rather than what Shuttleworth called the full 3D experience.

The problem is less in the hardware than it is in the Linux software stack, which has trouble enabling advanced graphics features.

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