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Exclusive Interview With Mark Shuttleworth, HUD, Ubuntu For Android And Much More

I met Mark Shuttleworth way back in 2006 at LinuxAsia. I did a long interview with Mark, while we walked around the Indian Habitat Center. Meeting with Mark after such a long time brought back those good old memories. He has not changed much — he is still a thorough gentleman, who is full of passion for free software and has a vision to take consumer Linux to the next level. In this interview we discussed HUD, Ubuntu for Android and challenges for Ubuntu in the desktop market. We have also published the video of the interview on YouTube which is embedded with this story. Read on…

Swapnil: Ubuntu was formed in 2004 as a Debian-based project. Today it has become one of the most popular free software projects. How does it feel when you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning?
Mark:
It’s It’s energizing to be surrounded by people who care about a couple of key things. They care about technology. There is incredible technology in the free software community and ultimately that gets expressed in Ubuntu and we want to be an expression of all the fantastic innovation that happens in the free software community.

It’s also energizing to be surrounded by people who care about people. The name Ubuntu is not Ubuntu-nix; it’s not a technology name — it’s a name about people so as a community we tend to attract people who care about society, care about the way technology is used and the changes that technology can create. So, the two of those things keep me excited from morning till night.

Swapnil: Year 2004 is important as two promising tech companies were founded by guys sharing the same first name. So what do you think when you look at Facebook and compare it with Ubuntu?
Mark:
Facebook has been an incredible success. It has connected people in fascinating new ways. Ubuntu has been its own success.  We each pursue the things that we are passionate about and interested in, and for me Ubuntu is an in expression of both what enterprise and commercial world can be about — this extraordinary free software platform delivered free of charge enterprise release every six months with vigorous cadence, vigorous engineering, vigorous quality but on a completely open terms backed by really great services from a really great company Canonical. I think we all explore the things we love.

Swapnil: Ubuntu’s Bug #1 says ‘Microsoft has majority market share’. I think here we are talking about Desktop. But desktop is a complicated market. People want to do so many different crazy things with their desktop which makes it a challenging market for Linux. Now new classes of devices are emerging. How much sense does it make for Canonical to continue to invest resources in the desktop?
Mark:
The bug #1 is not that much about Microsoft as much it is about diversity and its benefits. We know that in the Linux eco-system we embrace diversity, the fact that there are so many fascinating distributions — there are beautiful things in Arch Linux, there are beautiful things in Gentoo, Fedora, Debian and SUSE and that other 500 distros that you will find on DistroWatch. So that diversity stimulates innovation, it creates a lot of energy it also means that we don’t have to be all things to all people. We focus on creating a really productive environment for developers, office workers and school kids. But we don’t focus on tons of different areas where other distros can serve better. So that’s what bug #1 is really about. It’s about moving towards a world where people have access to technology on much more open basis. There is a big diversity and if you are a smart technologist you should try all of those things and find what’s interesting and useful for you.

I do think that desktop remains an important part of our everyday computing experience. We talk about the smartphones as the PC of the future but they are not. They are incredible handset devices and they will continue to get better. But the desktop form-factor remains that place where we create; we produce, where we apply rigor and discipline. This is important to all of us to various degrees. So what we are doing here at MWC is to bring the desktop to smartphone, I think it’s really innovative. I think some future version of windows will do the same thing because it’s a great idea but I am really proud that Ubuntu has brought that to the free software community before we see that in the proprietary software world — we have to lead, we have to innovate.

Swapnil:  What do you think is the biggest obstacle in the adoption of Ubuntu on the desktop — whether its look and feel or the availability of applications and services, because people want to do a lot of things with their desktops. They want to stream Netflix, they want to use Flikr and Picasa and most of these services are not available on Ubuntu. If we look at other players such as Google and Apple they ensure that such services or applications are available on their platforms. If the third party vendor is not offering their services on their platform they work with them to bring those services or applications to those platforms that seems to be missing from Ubuntu so how much is it your concern that an Ubuntu user does get access to such services and applications?
Mark:
What I think has held Linux back in past has been a combination of a couple of things, before we get to apps there is a user experience of the desktop itself. So that is why we set-up a design team at Canonical to really focus on how people use their computers, what they want to do on it today and also in future. It’s that design ethics that gave us Ubuntu for Android and Unity. We test that designs with programmers who use their computers very intensively every day. We also test it with people from the street from children to the elderly. So we have a very good idea about how usable a desktop is. That has been the driver for us across all the work that we have done.

With Ubuntu 12.04 we have seen fantastic results. We have seen people who did not like Unity initially are coming back and saying how fantastic it is. We have polished a lot of rough edges that held people back. So user experience and design is the first piece. Applications are the second piece and that is challenging. HTML5 makes things a bit easy — you can deliver the whole web beautifully — whether it with Firefox or Chrome. We have some of the best browsers in the world and we have that experience in a very secure environment. We let you browse the web with full confidence without fear of any malware attacks in a very efficient and fast manner.

As for native applications, that’s an important story so we are investing in making it really easy for developers to develop for Ubuntu. We have adopted Qt and QML as well as Gtk these are fantastic tools and are being used by developers. The Adobe Creative suite uses Qt, there are other big companies that produce software for popular platforms such as Mac and Windows using such tools. So we want to reach out to them and use tools they are familiar with. We have put a lot of work in the publishing process — how you take your app, how you package and deliver it to Ubuntu users.

Historically what made Ubuntu great is that you can get 20,000 packages in one command. Any of those 20,000 packages in one command with all the dependencies and updates that come with it. We are extending it by saying that you should be able to get that and anything that a software manufacturer out there wants to deliver it to you even if it is not packaged by us. So the whole developers.ubuntu.com story is really important. We have made great progress in the last two years.

Swapnil:  If we look at beyond individual developers, at big companies like Adobe which recently decided to not support Linux for their Flash anymore. Google came into picture and ensured that Adobe’s Flash will continue to be supported on their Linux platform which is Chrome OS. Ubuntu users won’t be able to use Flash outside Google’s Chrome. What do you say about such cases?s
Mark:
I am confident that Ubuntu users will continue to use Flash on desktop whenever they needed. Developers of commercial applications choose to target environments that are used in commercial, professional environment are used by people who are willing to spend money on software or support a business model in one way or the other – whether it’s streaming videos or the adverts that go with it or we have to show that GNU/Linux presents a viable platform to those developers. That’s the function from our side to make it really easy to use so users adopt it. From user’s side it’s a function of using it in a commercial way. You can’t expect people to write software for you which you won’t buy unless they are also part of the free software ecosystem. So we have to support the free software ecosystem and we also have to show that it is commercially viable for developers to target the platform. We have now so many millions of users on Ubuntu — from the enterprise through to emerging markets there are increasingly software developers who treat us as a first class citizens. There are always some developers coming and some leaving. The trend very strongly is for Ubuntu to be a first class citizen which is certified and supported. Just recently both VMware and Citrix certified Ubuntu for thin client usage for example. We are hard at work with other thin client vendors as well. I do believe that as a community we can create a viable platform for everyday computing.

Swapnil:  12.04 is going to be an LTS release. It was expected that with this version Unity with mature and stabilize and the team will focus on other pressing problems such as availability of services and applications on the platform. But then you announced HUD which means newer challenges, more work for developers and it also lead to some confusion. So, I have two questions for you. One: Is HUD going to replace the traditional menus or is it going to be supplementary? Two: What role does HUD play in the overall Ubuntu experience, how does it redefine the desktop?
Mark:
We have clearly said that we are interested in new form-factors — phones, tablets TV. We will in due course show the phone and tablet, Unity Ubuntu experiences as one coherent family. There is a lot of innovation that goes in designing those experiences as a one coherent family and we believe we have led the world there. The rest of the world says, the desktop is boring, it is not interesting but we believe that desktop is what most of us use most of the day. There is a lot of room for innovation there. We have done couple of things; we have focused on the design and user experience of the shell.

We focused on bringing personal cloud services to the desktop we were the first in Ubuntu to have the personal clouds services fully integrated with the operating system ahead of Apple, ahead of Microsoft — ahead of the competition. And we focused on bring the aspects of this new form-factor, the mobile form-factor into the desktop such as overlay scrollbars and so on. But there are other areas where we can innovate as well and HUD is an example of saying here is an interaction which has many good things about it, it is well understood but it is also slow and awkward in certain way and it doesn’t map to a world where people can use software applications every day. They are changing software applications must faster today than they did 15 years ago. 15 years ago you had to go out to a store and buy software and come home and install it there is a lot of friction and you wouldn’t do that very often.

Today we are getting software every day.  So, it’s worth exploring a new user interface paradigms. We looked at the menus and that’s where we started with HUD. HUD will go much further than just menus. It is completely complementary so menus aren’t going away. We think that if we can really innovate with the HUD the way we believe we can innovate with the HUD, that you will never user menus. So one day in future if they disappear you won’t notice. But they will probably be always around. Mainly we want to focus on helped people with get what they want to get done — done quickly. So there are two stories there. If you are a heavy user of digital video editing or GIMP or if you are a programmer and a heavy user of multiple terminal windows and consoles, we want to make you more productive in that professional context. At the other end of the spectrum there are light-weight users who are just trying an app and don’t want to learn everything about that app, they don’t want to map the whole app — they are just trying to get something done. HUD really is the first bit of user interface innovation we have seen that addresses but these opposite spectrum in a very nice way.

What’s shipping in 12.04 with HUD is just the first cut — just too signally intent and just to open it up so other people can innovate around it as well. But this is a real area of research, it is super exciting. We had contacts from user interface researchers from all major companies, from Microsoft through Google and they are fascinated by it. They think it is really powerful. We are very proud of it and we are proud that it is first available as free software.

Swapnil:  I saw the demo of Ubuntu for Android and it is exciting. People are really excited about it. But I think Motorola tried something similar with their WebTop OS but they did not succeed at it. Now considering the fact that Motorola also controls their hardware what makes you think that Ubuntu for Android will succeed where they have failed?
Mark:
Ubuntu for Android is so surprising for people because it’s this really beautiful desktop that comes from a place that they can’t believe. The look on their face is fantastic they love it. We are succeeding at that because we really care about that desktop experience we are not just trying to sell a phone. We don’t want to sell phone we care about that desktop experience, we want to be beautiful, fast, productive — all of those things. So that’s why we think we will succeed in that convergence space where others haven’t. The handset relationship is critical. The difference between Ubuntu for Android on dual core 1Ghz phone and a dual core 2Ghz phone is huge and teh difference between a small GPU and a large GPU is huge so Ubuntu for Android gives people a reason to buy a high-end phone because they can use it as a full desktop in that environment. The response has been amazing as they can see how disruptive this can be, how dramatically it changes the ecosystem.

Swapnil:  I agree that Ubuntu for Android is exciting as a project. But I can’t image any use cases. If I look at mobility I will have to carry an HDMI cable, keyboard, mouse and a dock and then I will also need an HDMI monitor to be able to use the Ubuntu for Android. It will be far easier for me to just bring my laptop and not worry about finding an HDMI monitor at the airport. If we look at enterprise customers, most companies don’t even allow USB devices as they fear data theft and here you are bringing your own computer and hooking it up to their systems. I do understand that there can be may use cases which I can think of, can you give us some examples, some use cases of Ubuntu for Android in different set-ups?
Mark:
There are two use cases that network operators and handset manufacturers are excited about. The first is the enterprise use case. We see a large number of enterprises virtualize their desktops and run the desktop in the datacenter with a thin client on the desktop. Ubuntu for Android allows an Enterprise to provision a corporate Android phone which is also a thin client and it is also the desk phone. So instead of provisioning three devices per person the corporate IT can essentially provision a single device and then run Windows in the datacente where is easier to manage or can be done more efficiently and can be delivered to any desk in the enterprise or over 4G network anywhere in the world. So the enterprise desktop is on market, the other market is emerging markets’ first PCs. For years telcos have said that they want to be the company that delivers the personal computing to you and the phone is going to be a personal computer. Here at MWC we actually have the phone being a personal computer.

Imagine a wealthy family in India they may not have a very good legacy copper telephony so they don’t have a very fast internet connection and they may not have any prior history with Windows or with PCs. It is a way for everybody in the family to have a slightly expensive phone which can be used as a PC just using the television, the blue tooth keyboard and mouse. With very low friction or very low additional requirements some very beautiful computing experiences can be have for someone who is getting their first PC.

We have folks from very large organisations, military organizations, government institutions and so on who care about security and manageability they are excited about this on the enterprise side and then we have those telcos who want to deliver first PCs to the next billion users very excited about it in the emerging markets.

Swapnil: . You have achieved so much at a young age. You have been to space and have seen the world from up there. You have seen that how these petty issues don’t matter when you look at a grand picture. Then you also founded one of the most popular free software projects. I am curious what is next as an individual and as a professional?
Mark:
There is so much yet to be explored and discovered with Ubuntu that I haven’t really put any energy or time in thinking about other things. I think in life we should pick a few things that are really meaningful for us that speak to our age, our interest our energy level and skills and we should really do just those things and be great at them. I don’t think I am great at Ubuntu. I make a lot of mistakes. I learn a lot as a leader of a big community and yes I am proud of everything that we have achieved but I think there is still a great deal to be done.

Ubuntu will be certified for the first time for enterprise IT use on the server this year and that is an incredible step for us. That takes us from a pioneer, from being only a community distribution, expression of the will of the free software community to being something that can be used in settings where security is important, reliability is important where businesses are at risk. And I think that is an important step for our community as well.

To give people the ability to participate directly in a first tier, world class Linux platform that is of commercial grade. That never existed before where you got a company and a community really working together. So us moving into the commercial space, together with our community, growing the free Ubuntu desktop, growing the free Ubuntu server, growing Ubuntu in the cloud. There is enormous amount to be discovered and I haven’t run out of race-track yet by any means.

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Swapnil:  Will you buy a ticket to Mars if available and become Mars Shuttleworth?
Mark: I
would love to see deeper into the solar system than I have been privileged to see so far but for now Ubuntu keeps my feet on the ground and my head in the cloud.

Slideshow Image:
Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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