Open Voices €“ Mark Shuttleworth


The Linux Foundation's interview series began with a bang, starting off with a long and fascinating chat with Linus himself. A difficult act to follow, but Ubuntu/Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth is certainly a good choice, since in some respects he represents the open source generation after Linus – one more focussed on providing a total solution for end-users rather than one of the underlying software engines.

That's reflected in Shuttleworth's holistic view of things:

folks often tend to try and think of Linux as coming from a monolithic provider, but it doesn’t. It’s this intensely collaborative effort to produce a Linux distribution.

And so, it seems to be that recognizing that enhancing the productivity of collaboration between different groups is a real way to boost the platform as a whole. And at Ubuntu we feel this very, very keenly because not only do we want to collaborate with other upstream projects like Apache or X or Open Office, but we also very much want to be part of and collaborate with Debian which is a very large project in its own right.

This larger perspective also lets him pull out the key issues behind making a project work:

if you look at the projects that are successful, that produce inspiring work and that produce it predictably and address issues and manage change well, I think they do two things very well and the first is, obviously, they have very good technical leadership.

Whether that comes from a company, whether it comes from an individual or whether it comes from a collection of individuals, it’s really important that there be a meritocratic process of letting the best thinker, the best idea, the best work effectively bubble to the top.

But they also do something else and that is that they manage a very positive social process. I think the best projects recognize that they have to maintain really constructive, positive relationships internally and with other projects if they want to continue to have really good ideas and get really good input.

So, I look at guys like Linus who is obviously a superb technical leader, but he’s also an exceptional leader, right? Has an exceptional ability to motivate for decisions to be taken, but he also has a good way to motivate people to go and explore things and do great work and that’s a hallmark, I think, of all of the really good open source projects.

Shuttleworth is also interesting because he straddles the divide between those working on a “pure” project – Ubuntu – and those running a business based around that project - Canonical. This means he is very well placed to comment on one of the central concerns with these kind of service-based models: what happens when someone else starts to offer the same services around “your” software?

I do think as the driver of a platform, you get to monetize it in ways that other people can’t and a really good example of that right now is what’s unfolding in the Red Hat/Oracle arena where Red Hat effectively underwrites the cost of producing that platform and Oracle is, by and large, attempting to commoditize that and then compete on the services layer.

While that’s a really interesting strategy that Oracle has chosen to pursue and certainly is perfectly legitimate, it’s sort of one of the cool things that you get out of working with an open source platform.

I think it would be very difficult for a customer who is actually interested in the road map of that platform to believe that anybody other than Red Hat could articulate what the road map of that platform was. And so, Oracle has, to a certain extent, chosen a strategy which defines them as purely a service provider for somebody else’s platform and that means that they are always playing at something of a disadvantage.

So, while they may well offer value in that section and Red Hat is going to have to compete with them and offer value in that services platform, I think Red Hat does have a key competitive advantage when it comes to servicing the Red Hat platform.

And, of course, no interview with an open source heavyweight would be complete without some brow-furrowing on the subject of the main competitor:

It’s going to be very interesting to see what role Linux plays in unsettling Microsoft. It’s certainly true that one of Microsoft’s major cash cows—which is the operating system—is very vulnerable to commoditization. You know, I believe that the operating system is already a commodity; it’s just that most folks haven’t realized it and so they’re willing to pay for it.

So, we’ll see. I think Microsoft is going to have to be willing to do what no company likes to do which is rethink and reinvent and potentially, in many areas, scale back on their take, as it were, in order to capture the next strategic high ground and I’m not sure that they – while they’re going through a leadership transition which they clearly are doing, I don’t know that they’re going to be able to do that. So, it’s going to be very interesting.

An attempt at rethinking and reinventing can be seen in last week's announcement about Microsoft's moves to open up. It's also worth noting that this leadership transition that Shuttleworth refers to is made even messier by the Yahoo business, which could well change Microsoft in all sorts of profound ways – and that's assuming the merger succeeds. Interesting times, indeed....

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