Chrome nearly replaced Firefox in Ubuntu Linux, Mark Shuttleworth says

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

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth talks Chrome, Linux controversies, Ubuntu tablets and space travel, and explains why he doesn't own a smartphone.

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."

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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.

"The Linux graphics stack enablement isn't great," Shuttleworth said. "There are a lot of devices where [Unity] is not an appropriate choice. So we've been working on a 2D version of Unity, which preserves all the same semantics and behaviors, but it's visually less intense."

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While Shuttleworth said Canonical's user testing shows Unity is easier to use than GNOME 3, he acknowledged there are aspects of the new menu and search systems that "are slightly awkward to use."

"I look at the comments that come in from my blog as one indicator and there are absolutely folks who both hate it and love it," Shuttleworth said. "Someone commented the other day saying we should rename it 'Exodus,'" because it will cause people to switch to another Linux OS.

"We'll clean all that up in the next cycle," he said. "I think this next release will feel much tighter. We have a very large user base, so we're pretty confident that the issues we need to address are documented."

Linux code controversies

While Canonical has been criticized for not contributing more code to Linux and GNOME, Shuttleworth defended the company's level of contribution both to the code base and to the mission of making Linux usable for the masses.

"We get painted into a bit of a hole here," he said. "We have 30-plus kernel developers at Canonical. Typically what they're doing is making sure that the kernel works well on new hardware, whether that's by integrating existing device drivers, or by creating new device drivers or by fixing and updating old ones. There's a ton of work there. That ends up having a real impact on the number of people who can run Linux without thinking about it."

Further, Canonical contributes heavily to AppArmor, a security model for the Linux kernel that was maintained by Novell until Novell laid off its AppArmor programmers in 2007.

AppArmor keeps Linux users safe by restricting applications' permissions to interact with the network, file system and memory, Shuttleworth said. For example, even if a browser is infected it can't be used to send spam or read a password file. "We contribute effectively all of that now," Shuttleworth said.

But don't expect more from Canonical.

"I don't see it as our role to be at the forefront of driving the next generation of the kernel," he said. "It's not important to our users to be trying to invent a new file system or a new memory manager. That hasn't been a requirement. Our users care about the fact that the operating system just works on their hardware."

The code question has occasionally turned into a Red Hat vs. Canonical flame war. Shuttleworth said whether it's IBM, Intel or Red Hat, companies that contribute to the Linux kernel do so at least partly out of self-interest, to make sure Linux works well with their own products. In fact, he was so insistent on this point that he dropped his phone, explaining that he lost control of it while waving his arms around.

"Everybody has the things they want to work on," Shuttleworth said. "I think it's a little tasteless for folks who work for competitors to jump up and down and say that Canonical doesn't contribute. I find that bizarre."

Why Mark Shuttleworth doesn't own a smartphone

Shuttleworth spent $20 million to become a space tourist in 2002, but hasn't ponied up $200 for a smartphone.

"I'm the last of the non-smartphone holdouts," Shuttleworth said. "Someone described my phone as being designed not to get stolen."

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For the record, Shuttleworth said it's an "old Nokia" phone. Shuttleworth considered getting the iPhone but was put off by Apple's antenna problem. While he's curious to see what the iPhone 5 will look like, he's more intrigued by the Android-based Motorola Atrix, which turns into a laptop when plugged into a dock. He remains undecided on the iPhone vs. Android question, but said of the Atrix: "I think that's the most interesting form factor right now."

Lest you think Shuttleworth is depriving himself, he does own an iPad 2, which he uses mostly for casual Web browsing.

An Ubuntu tablet?

Speaking of the iPad, Shuttleworth spends much of his time fending off questions about when Canonical and partner hardware companies will release a proper Ubuntu tablet. The Ubuntu interface is now more touchscreen-friendly than ever, and some people have shoehorned Ubuntu onto tablets designed to run specific applications, he said.

But there is no official Ubuntu tablet "because Unity as it is right now is not a tablet interface," Shuttleworth said. "The applications easily accessible to Ubuntu are not tablet apps. It would be misrepresenting it to suggest otherwise."

Canonical has embraced the Qt framework, which has multi-touch capabilities. But Shuttleworth did not provide any timeline for an Ubuntu tablet.

Open source vs. proprietary software, and Microsoft

Clearly, Shuttleworth the iPad buyer is an open source guy who doesn't mind using some products from proprietary companies.

"It's good to know what everybody else is doing, when the state of the art is elsewhere," he said. "And also because I think if we want free software to become the de facto standard, we have to get a whole bunch of different things right. We have to be really good at working in heterogeneous environment because the road to a free software world has proprietary software all the way along it."

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"Banging an ideological drum" isn't the way to convince the majority of developers to write for free software environments and release software under the GPL, he said. "Those aren't ideological problems. Those are practical and economic problems."

The elephant in the room for open source advocates has long been Microsoft. But Shuttleworth takes a measured tone toward Redmond, even complementing what he called "really exciting ideas" in Windows 8.

"Very simplistic characterizations of any large group are almost certainly going to turn out to be false," he said. "The company has been caught abusing a monopoly position. I think that's terrible. They're not the first to do it. They're not the last to do it, either. The question really is, can one engage and work with them and compete with them on an evenhanded basis?"

Shuttleworth called Microsoft's patent lawsuits related to Android "acts of desperation," but said the company's attitude toward open source is maturing on the whole. (See also: "Microsoft: 'We love open source'")

Shuttleworth says there is "every reason to believe" Canonical and Microsoft will come to terms on a partnership to run Ubuntu Server more easily on Hyper-V, Microsoft's virtualization platform.

"We have constructive conversations with them about people running Ubuntu on their virtualization service, and vice versa," he said.

While the tech industry is undergoing an evolution toward new form factors, like tablets, smartphones and thin clients, Shuttleworth acknowledged that Ubuntu isn't going to supplant Windows as the top desktop operating system.

"It's clear that on the standard desktop front, the Windows position is unassailable," he said. "What's less clear is how relevant that traditional definition of a desktop remains."

Space: Shuttleworth's first and final frontier

Shuttleworth became an amateur astronaut before he even founded Canonical, spending more than a week on the International Space Station in April 2002. He said space "remains the final frontier. It's also vastly unexplored. Right now, there are real limitations in our ability to go deep into space. I've done low Earth orbit. Someone is going to around the Moon and I'm going to be very envious of that.

"Right now, I'm tied up trying to solve some very interesting problems here on Earth, but who knows about the future. The key thing for me would be, 'Can I really be part of helping push back those frontiers. [Going to space] was an enormous privilege. If I go back it's because I really want to help push back the limits."

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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