Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Two Interviews with Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth during his 2002 space flight.

Here are two recent interviews with South African entrepreneur, astronaut and Ubuntu Linux founder Mark Shuttleworth. From the Guardian Newspaper:

'Linux is a platform for people, not just specialists'
In 1999, the South African-born Mark Shuttleworth sold his internet company, Thawte, which provided digital certificates for websites, for more than $500m (£254m). After spending $20m on a trip into space, he started the Ubuntu project - named after an African word meaning "Humanity to others", or "I am what I am because of who we all are" - which has since become the most popular GNU/Linux distribution.

Technology Guardian: To what extent did your space trip feed into Ubuntu?

Mark Shuttleworth
Going to space and seeing the Earth from a distance makes it very clear just how interdependent we are. So I wanted to do something that was really global; free software is a phenomenon that is truly global.

TG: What are the implications of choosing that name?

MS That this is a platform for people. Linux has come from a tradition of being a platform for specialists. We articulated the challenge for us very clearly in our name: "Let's make this something that we can proudly give out to people who are not passionate about technology."

TG: How does your company, Canonical, fit into this?

MS [Ubuntu] has its own release cycle. It has its own governance structures. Canonical plays a significant role in those, and we are the largest underwriter of all the work that gets done. We make sure that it releases on time; that it's available globally; that it meets criteria; that it works across a certain portfolio of hardware that third parties have asked us to certify. But we don't take credit for all of the smart thinking that happens in Ubuntu. In fact, in almost every release there's been an idea that came from volunteer participants that turned into a profoundly important feature in that release. [...]

In the course of the interview, he reveals that his Linux company, Canonical, is not breaking even, not even close, but that he sees their work as positioning the company for future profitability.

Then we have this longer interview from Linux Magazine, where he talks about the Shuttleworth Foundation, what he hopes to accomplish with it, and how his company Canonical and their product Ubuntu Linux tie into that, and open source software's application to the education sector.

The Man Behind Ubuntu: Talking with Mark Shuttleworth
[...] Linux Magazine recently got the chance to talk with Shuttleworth about his philanthropical endeavor: The Shuttleworth Foundation.

Linux Magazine: What is the concept, the mission, behind the Shuttleworth Foundation?

Mark Shuttleworth: The idea is to build an institution that focuses on accelerating social change, or accelerating change in the social areas. If you look at the business world, we have institutions that focus on channeling money to change — venture capital, for example. We as a whole industry set up to try to identify smart ideas, ideas that will make businesses more efficient, make businesses more effective, make them more profitable. And as the capital gets channeled to ideas, successful ideas sort of stand out and grow very quickly into successful companies. So a new concept can move from idea to industry in a relatively short period of time. If you look at just over the last ten or fifteen years how things like the web itself and other changes have moved from concept to industry very, very quickly, it’s well established.

But in the social fields, like education, we don’t have nearly the same ability to channel funding to ideas and evaluate them to see if they’re successful and then scale up the ones that really work. So ideas move very slowly from concept to industry or industry norm. So the idea with the Foundation was really to try and build an institution that is better at spotting interesting ideas, proving them, funding them, and then helping translate them into a standard practice or best practice form for the social system.

And so open source fit neatly into the Foundation for a while, because for a while, it was a change, it was new. It was different. It was unproven. And the Foundation did quite a lot of work in South Africa around showing how open source could cut the cost of putting computers into schools and teaching kids technology. It did that very successfully. But once something is sort of proven, then in my mind it sort of falls off the agenda because the Foundation should always be looking forward to the next sort of shift. So right now the Foundation doesn’t do a huge amount with open source, they’re doing a quite a lot with open content, and the focus is on trying to figure out how you harness the knowledge, talent, and passion of teachers around the country to produce textbooks effectively that are shared the same way we harness the knowledge and passion of software engineers to produce things like Linux, that are shared. That’s a very interesting and fruitful area for the Foundation right now.

Linux Magazine: Excellent! That’s really a matter sort of close to my heart, since I trained as a librarian.

Mark Shuttleworth: Really? So open access and things like that are familiar to you.

The area of content is fascinating because its so tied up in policy, you know. Education content and education policy are sort of inseparable. If teachers are nervous or teaching something that isn’t certified government — governments will certify things that set a particular ideological way of seeing the world more often than not. And so you can look at a situation unlike Wikipedia, if you’re trying to do Wikipedia for textbooks, it’s very, very difficult, because every country has its own view of the truth and what should be taught. It’s very interesting and very complicated area, and ultimately one that I think someone will solve and it will really will change the field.

Linux Magazine: Something you mentioned earlier reminded me of something you brought up in an interview last year with ComputerWorld. You mentioned that one of your favorite things were technological “tidal waves” — things that race through society and change everything they touch. I know that the Foundation is a big ripple in that tidal wave, with the promotion of open standards and open software. What do you think, in the last seven years since the Foundation’s creation, that the most significant change has been in South Africa and the world in general, in terms of open access and open source?

Mark Shuttleworth: You know, it may sound trite to say it, the Internet itself remains the single biggest shift and single biggest earthquake that’s driving the tidal waves. There are seismic shifts taking place. This article I was reading was talking about how simply placing Internet connected PCs in public venues in villages in India is hugely effecting the economic potency of the people in those regions. Because suddenly they have access to information, things that you and I take for granted. So the process of connecting the people of the world to each other — which finished in San Francisco sort of early in the ’90s, but it has continued to sort of move through society, through the rest of the world, even to pre-Internet connectivity.

Things like text messaging with mobile phones have an enormous societal impact because they change people’s ability to organize politically, they change people’s ability to get economic information, the prices of markets, the availability of services, opening and closing times for offices they may need to visit and so on. And just that sort of shift towards connecting the people of the world is an enormous energizing factor. And it has echoes, echoes in the form of things like open source software, which really was not feasible at scale before the Internet. You know, open source software was kind of limited to universities which were to a certain extent, sort of connected already, even if it was only by email. But they were connected. And today, the pool of talent into which we can tap is just so much bigger because there’s just a much, much larger pool of people who are connected. So at a human level, it’s that connectivity.

At a machine level, it’s also that connectivity. We see sort of ongoing evidence that ultimately every device wants to be connected to the Internet. Back in 2000, when people said, “Oh, that’s the Internet, that’s the dot com bubble bursting,” many people thought the Internet itself was a bit of a fad. But in fact, it continues to sweep through all sorts of areas of society and technology, and shift people’s expectations, shift what’s possible.

I just bought a new hi-fi. The amplifier will happily connect to the Internet and download firmware updates for itself. It’s just extraordinary. We’re getting to the point where literally every device in the home, every device in the car, or the office, is effectively on the net and uses the net in effective ways. I think that’s going to continue to ripple through our field for the next ten or fifteen years. [...]

There's much more, a look at new technologies on the horizon such as sub-notebooks, and a look at how open source is changing teaching and learning, particularly as it has been applied to South Africa. Very interesting.

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