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12/13/2007
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Ubuntu Backer Is One Lucky Guy

Mark Shuttleworth says he's more lucky than smart, but his record says otherwise.


Mark Shuttleworth, Founder, Ubuntu open source project and Canonical

Mark Shuttleworth
Founder, Ubuntu open source project and Canonical
He's a technologist, venture capitalist, social experimenter, philanthropist, and Russian-trained space traveler. Oh, and Mark Shuttleworth originated the world's fastest-growing Linux distribution, Ubuntu.

It began when Shuttleworth, while at Capetown University in South Africa, produced a Web server capable of issuing encrypted digital certificates for Netscape, which needed a supplier outside the United States, where PKI encryption was tied up in legal knots.

VeriSign bought Shuttleworth's Thawte, and he went on to found a venture capital firm and the Shuttleworth Foundation, which aims to give schools low-cost Linux-based computer labs. That prompted him to put $10 million into Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, one of the few Linux distributions focused on ease of use. "Linux doesn't need to be something that's arcane and difficult to use," he says.

Shuttleworth spent $20 million being trained as a Russian astronaut, where he gained respect for "Russian pragmatic engineering." He notes that the capsule commander understands how everything on board works, because engineers kept it simple. There's a lesson in there for Linux.

Q&A With Mark Shuttleworth
InformationWeek: What did Thwate produce?

Shuttleworth: We felt digital certificates had to be pervasive, had be available from any where at low bandwidth. We couldn't sell cryptography in the United States but we could sell it anywhere else in the world. We did an end run around the silly regulations that prevented other companies from doing so. We wanted to unblock the queue of people who wanted to set up commercial Web sites [and use the certificates for secure transactions]. Netscape liked the point of view of a small, unknown South African company. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to catch the eye of Netscape.

IW: What's the name of your HBD Venture Capital firm mean?

Shuttleworth: Here Be Dragons. [In the pre-Columbus world] that was the label for the parts of the map that went beyond the known parts of the world.

IW: Why are you concerned about ease of use when many Linux developers see it as a lesser issue?

Shuttleworth: I'm not brilliant technically like Linux Torvalds. I feel the gaps in Linux usability personally. When you're an exceptional developer, you can be blinded to the ease of use issues. Besides, people gravitate to the problems that they're best equipped to help fix.

IW: Is there a social concern behind your ease of use drive?

Shuttleworth: Many emerging parts of the world are hungry for technology that's low cost and easy to use. You'll see Ubuntu adopted in those parts of the world more so than in the Western consumer world.

IW: What's it like to go into space?

Shuttleworth: The Soyuz capsule is about the size of a Volkswagon Beetle with three guys strapped into the front seat. The rocket is a real firecracker, smaller than the U.S. Saturn [which launched Apollo]. The flight was just magical. I hope to do it again. I developed a real respect for Russian pragmatic engineering. The commanders of a Soyuz can understand how the whole thing works.

IW: What's the latest thing you've gotten into? What's next on your agenda?

Shuttleworth: I'm a recent convert to snowboarding. I enjoy it a lot. I will never be particularly good at it, but I do enjoy being in the mountains. Other than that, I'm a bit of a geek. I hope the Shuttleworth Foundation can help reshape the way we teach analytical skills. We historically do it by teaching math, but math is dry. I can hardly remember my high school math. We think we can use technology to help kids gain analytical skills. Kids love technology.

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