The Man Behind Ubuntu: Talking with Mark Shuttleworth

Linux Magazine spends some time with the man who made Ubuntu, arguably the most popular desktop Linux distribution, possible. Kristin Shoemaker finds out what makes Mark tick, and what's going on with the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Mark Shuttleworth is a man who wears many hats. To some, he is the founder of the Ubuntu project. To others, he’s the man behind Canonical, and HBD Venture Capital. Much of the world knows him as the first African space traveler. There is another hat that Shuttleworth wears that isn’t always at the forefront of conversation. It is an extremely important hat, not only for the future of open source software, but for the future of learning, South Africa, and the world at large.

Talking to Shuttleworth is enlightening, and talking to him about something he’s particularly passionate about is a treat. He attributes much of his success to “luck” and much of his efforts to give back as “simply responsibility.” Maybe there is luck involved, and maybe it is responsibility that calls him, but after speaking with him, we’re convinced it is less luck and more intellect, empathy, and deep passion and compassion for his industry and fellow human beings.

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.

Linux Magazine: Has the emergence of less expensive hardware — of course the OLPC, and even competitors like the Intel Classmate, Eee (my personal favorite), and Cloudbook — helped some of the Foundation’s projects get more of a foothold than they would have previously?

Mark Shuttleworth: You know, the combination of very low cost hardware, and low-cost doesn’t necessarily mean low power, these are what three years ago would have been very high performance chips, right?

Linux Magazine It changes so quickly!

Mark Shuttleworth: Yeah! Low cost, very high performance, long battery life hardware, combined with the Internet which shifts people’s sense of what’s important from a computer from what local applications are running to how effectively it accesses the web, to Linux. This means you can turn on the devices in any shape, size, color and combination that you want and it’s igniting a phenomenal amount of innovation. I think the Eee PC is a harbinger for things to come.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how that sub-notebook plays out over the next three to five years.

Linux Magazine: It is. Especially where even larger notebooks are getting less expensive… But it’s coming down to price point versus function. I’ve always viewed notebooks as being not as functional as my desktop.

Mark Shuttleworth: Do you use the Eee PC all the time?

Linux Magazine: Not all the time, but much more than I thought I would.

Mark Shuttleworth: That’s interesting! Very interesting.

Linux Magazine: The Kusasa project uses computers as a discovery platform, putting more emphasis on discovery and learning, rather than straight computation. It focuses more on how a computer is a tool, rather than an end.

Mark Shuttleworth: It’s a really interesting project, that. It’s a very challenging project, because it’s right the cutting edge of both computation and cognition and training and teaching. You’re combining those sort of very delicate precise things with very amorphous sort of poorly understood things, so it’s not all clear yet what they’re going to produce. But the concept is something that fascinates me. It’s profoundly asking the question: What is the meaning of an education? What is the value of an education? What does one really take from an education?

Classically we taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Mathematics particularly, mathematics and science for example, have sort of become proxies for what is effectively analytical training. When you’re teaching mathematics, you’re not trying to develop a little mathematician. You’re trying to just exercise certain capabilities in the brain, so that those capabilities are there later on in life, not for mathematics, but for other problems that one might need to solve. It’s that ability to distill a problem down to its component pieces, and apply patterns, familiar patterns to the component pieces, and then synthesize the results. That’s really powerful.

When we look at an education system like that in South Africa, we’re really struggling to find teaching capacity, especially for things like mathematics. It’s a very interesting prospect to say, well, can we actually attain the same goal — can we produce analytical minds without training little mathematicians? And I don’t know whether or not they’ll be successful. But it’s such a fascinating idea I’m delighted to fund it and make it possible.

Linux Magazine: School’s changed a lot since I’ve been there. But when I look back and I can’t help but think if I could have gotten into a program like this, I probably would have appreciated analytical thinking a lot more than I did at the time. I imagine this would get the types of learners that might not naturally take to math and science to have a bit more interest in math and science.

Mark Shuttleworth: Yeah. It seems to me that people who do really well with mathematics, what they’re really expressing is a fascination with the ability to solve puzzles, and apply patterns, establish patterns. What I want to see is if we can make those puzzles and patterns and skills more attractive and more interesting. Can we produce kids out of school who are just so alive and alert to the opportunities for solving problems that they are exceptional. Exceptional people. Human development is a very, very interesting subject.

Linux Magazine: It is. Not sure if we’ll get to the bottom of it ever, but I guess there should always be mysteries.

Mark Shuttleworth: Sure.

Linux Magazine: The Freedom Toaster project is something the Shuttleworth Foundation funded until it became a self-sustaining venture. Can you tell me a little about it?

Mark Shuttleworth: I think the most powerful thing there was that it combined a very powerful idea, which is content and collaborative or Creative Commons type licensing, with the solution to a real obstacle to the flourishing of that content — which is distribution in truly, fully connected world. In a fully connected world, you sort of imagine that every person has access to every piece of content that’s ever been produced. You know, if you talk to a kid who’s growing up in a privileged environment today, they sort of do think that they have, in a sense, access to every piece of music that’s ever been recorded anywhere. Any concert, by any artist, at any time. That’s the world we’re moving to. It’s a very powerful world.

For people who don’t have connectivity, the Freedom Toaster gave them so much access to that collaboratively produced content in a way which is appropriate for people who don’t have pervasive connectivity. I think that was a powerful idea. It’s such a simple idea. I can’t take any credit for it. It was some of the guys in the Foundation who said “Hey, we need to solve this problem. We have all these kids coming through this Center over here, and they’re all very excited about this content, and they can’t take it home with them. They can’t get it when they’re at home. So let’s give it them. Let’s just build it for them.” It worked pretty well.

Linux Magazine: How have the educators (and I mean this in a loose way, either formal educators or community youth leaders) taken to the various projects you’ve done, either with the open source software or even the open access concepts? From experience, people can be a little leery of anything of a shared or collaborative nature.

Mark Shuttleworth: There’s no single intervention which is a universally loved result. I remember very clearly encountering a lot of resistance from the local department of education around the idea of putting Linux into schools, because they were building a very similar sort of capability, but all around Windows. They saw it as very threatening to have essentially a — well, it wasn’t private sector — but a non-government entity sort of proselytizing and promoting an alternative approach. And wow, we encountered a tremendous amount of resistance.

What happened there was that — and they had some really valid points — they were concerned about skills development and whether there would be adequate skills to maintain and support those platforms. They were concerned about whether the skills that were created when you teach people on open source, whether those skills are relevant for folks that may have to spend their working lives working with proprietary tools. Are you actually helping them if you’re giving them, potentially, the wrong set of skills?

I think we managed to address most of their concerns, and they found that their expectations of — they thought that they could get proprietary technologies free of charge, because they’d sort of been promised that. It turned out that actually they couldn’t, and they came around to the realization that the free and open source approach was in fact very bankable. It had a lot of integrity to it, you knew exactly where you stood. You could build and make your investments around it, and know what you were going to get. You weren’t counting on a particular deal with a particular person for a particular company. So that sort of sorted out that situation.

I’ve had folks very upset that they should be given computers that they should be given computers that didn’t have the software they were expecting on them. Conversely, we had teachers saying, “Wow, we had no idea that there’s this enormous universe of amazing tools. We can teach so much more on these platforms than we would have been able to teach had Windows and a word processor. So there’s always a full spectrum of responses when you get involved with people who have different expectations and different ideas about what they need.

Linux Magazine: I found that in the library as well. There was a lot less resistance, interestingly, from the patrons, who just saw the bottom line of what they could do. Keeping a public Windows computer clean is an evil, evil thing.

Mark Shuttleworth: I bet! It’s a nightmare.

Linux Magazine: You’ve mentioned a few times in our conversation that the connectivity and computer access situations in South Africa aren’t really near what would expect in North America or Europe. What does the typical school or educational institution have access to in that area?

Mark Shuttleworth: A vast majority of schools would not have access to computing or the Internet. Five or six years ago, more than half of the schools didn’t have electricity, and a different more than half the schools didn’t have running water. This is an enormously constrained environment. That’s… In an urbanizing country, which South Africa is, and with most countries that are rapidly urbanizing, those problems are more easily dealt with. But then there are other social problems, like the ability to stay focused on studying when they’re in a very complex social environment like a township or a squatter camp. They are very complex, and they are just really very poor.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of talent there. How do you bring that talent to the front? How do you shape it? Bring it out?

Linux Magazine: Open access can be an equalizing force, then? Do you see that starting to play out now, as kids get involved? Are the kids more able to contribute to their world as a whole?

Mark Shuttleworth: There are of course amazing success stories, just amazing success stories. But moving the dial, as it were, across a country, is just a huge challenge, and so I think progress has been really quite slow in South Africa. That’s very frustrating when you know that that potential… every six or seven years you have another crop of kids leaving junior school, and I’m very conscious of the delta between what they’re capable of and what they’ve been able to realize they’re capable of. And we have a very long way to go.

Linux Magazine: It is wonderful, though, that these steps are being taken. What inspired you to take steps in this direction? Was there an event, or…

Mark Shuttleworth: No, no… I was very, very privileged in ’99 to sell an Internet business, which was a great, thriving business… But to sell it on very, very favorable terms. It was clear to me that I didn’t want to create a family dynasty. So the question then was what do you do with the loot? I fully intended to enjoy it and do interesting things with it. But I also figured that it was a bit of a responsibility to see it well deployed, and deployed on projects which would create similar opportunities for others to those that I had. The Foundation is one way of doing that.

Linux Magazine: Thank you, Mark, for your time!

Mark Shuttleworth: Thank you for this opportunity!

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