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Interview: Ubuntu founder talks 10.04, cloud integration, and Ubuntu on tablets

Ubuntu launched the next big update of its OS on Thursday. We spoke with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth about 10.04, the future of Ubuntu, and more.

Podcast

Ubuntu officially launched the next big update to its OS on Thursday. We spoke with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth about what's in 10.04, the new UI, cloud integration with the desktop, and whether we'll see a tablet version of Ubuntu in the future.

The Big Question is a joint production from ZDNet and TechRepublic that I normally co-host with ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan. Larry is in San Francisco this week so this episode is a one-on-one interview with Shuttleworth (right).

You can play this 27-minute episode from the Flash-based player at the top of the page, read the full transcript below, or:

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Full transcript

Jason Hiner

Welcome to The Big Question Podcast, episode number 29 for April 29, 2010. I'm Jason Hiner, and this is a joint ZDNet and TechRepublic podcast where we pick one of the hottest issues in the tech world and attack it head on. So, if you give us the time it takes for the average commute to work, then we'll try to make you smarter about one important topic every week.

This week we have a special episode featuring an interview with Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth, on the next big release of Ubuntu.

This episode is sponsored by TechRepublic's Guide to IT Policies and Procedures, which has over 100 customizable templates that IT leaders can use to really save some serious time and money. You can purchase a copy today and download it right away at policies.techrepublic.com.

This week's guest is Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, which it calls "Linux for Human Beings." Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Shuttleworth

Jason, it's a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.

Jason Hiner

So, Mark, this week Ubuntu takes another step forward with the release of version 10.04, a major release, which you guys do every two years. And with this one, you're really putting a lot of emphasis on the simplification and beautification of the user interface as well as integrating the OS with cloud services. So, tell us more about that, and tell us some of the stuff that you're most excited about with 10.04.

Mark Shuttleworth

Well, yes, as you said, this is a very significant release for us. We only do an LTS [Long Term Support version] every two years. It's fantastic that we're able to commit to doing them literally like clockwork every two years. We work with an enormous community of diverse upstreams, Debian and many others, and yet it all comes together, somewhat like clockwork for a great release.

The cloud is defining many different aspects of computing at the moment, and for us it's really interesting to try and bring cloud-like experiences to the desktop. And we're doing that from the sort of very social side of things, integrating Twitter and Facebook so that they feel like a natural part of your computing experience. All the way through to the service side, where we're making it possible for people to build out their own cloud infrastructures, very smoothly, very easily; to replicate some of the elasticity of EC2 from Amazon.

Jason Hiner

So, talk to us a little bit more about the cloud, which really, what I think of, and probably what people are going to think of at least on the desktop side, is Ubuntu One.

Mark Shuttleworth

Right. So, the key idea there is to move some of the things that people have traditionally associated with the Web browser into the desktop itself. For example, when you sign into your desktop in the morning, it will immediately start to tell you about things that have happened on Facebook while you weren't paying attention. And when things happen on Facebook you can have that delivered to your desktop in a discreet, kind of a - as a notification.

On Ubuntu One, we focused more on the way people manage their address book, manage their files, and making it possible for people to have sort of a seamless experience across multiple desktops, and ultimately, across all kinds of devices. So, for example, the ability to synchronize your desktop address book with your phone and across multiple desktops, the ability for you to ultimately sync any kind of documents across multiple desktops and potentially multiple devices and get access to it over the Web. It's that kind of seamlessness and instant access to data that we're striving for across the desktop experience.

Jason Hiner

Okay, yes. I've worked with Ubuntu One a little bit, the file piece, because that was already there. It's real similar to like Dropbox, services like Dropbox and others.

Mark Shuttleworth

Right.

Jason Hiner

SugarSync, I think, is another one. [So] you copy a file there and then any computers that you have that Ubuntu One connected, that service connected, it automatically syncs to the folder. So that's a really cool piece. But then you guys are also doing this contacts piece as well. So you put your address book in Ubuntu. If you have Ubuntu One then it kind of syncs up to the cloud, and I noticed there's actually a free iPhone app that will let you bring those contacts over. Is that the behavior? Are there other apps as well, like Android or other phones? BlackBerry?

Mark Shuttleworth

So, we expect that the address book piece will end up addressing all of the major handsets and devices. The more general proposition is also very interesting, though. And that is to say, "Can we create a replicating, synchronized, structured data store that you can use for almost any kind of application?" And, there are all sorts of interesting use cases for that emerging; for example, synchronizing credentials and bookmarks and Tomboy notes and various other sorts of structured data across devices as well. And that's an area where I think Ubuntu One differentiates itself; the ability to offer application developers an easy way to store data that gets replicated across all of the machines that a person has worked on. It's inspired a little bit by some of the work that's going on with HTML 5 and the client-side storage there, but with a special emphasis on the use cases, people who have multiple devices and want to keep that data synchronized across them for any application.

Jason Hiner

Okay, compare this a little bit for us to - Microsoft offers a few of these services with Windows Live, Apple on the Mac is offering a little bit through Mobile Me; how does Ubuntu One compare with those?

Mark Shuttleworth

In some areas I think that [Ubuntu One] is setting the bar, particularly on things like the structured data capability and the work that we have lined up around management of credentials and identity, essentially. In other areas, I think other companies have the lead. The key challenge for us, in the next cycle for example, is going to be to give people seamless capabilities to edit their documents on the Web. A lot of people are familiar with Google Docs. Zoho Office is another similar capability, and we'll be exploring that in 10.10, making it possible to share and collaboratively edit through the Web any document that you might have initially created on your desktop. So it's a very complex space. It's certainly moving very fast, and it's exciting to be sort of keeping the free software flag waving right at the front of it.

Jason Hiner

Nice. Okay. I'll tell you one area that's really interesting is the Ubuntu One music store. So you guys are launching this with 10.04, and what's interesting to me is you buy your music, but you have to connect it to an Ubuntu One account, as I understand it, and then it syncs that down to - or when you buy the music, it syncs it to your Ubuntu One account, and then that Ubuntu One account syncs it to all of your machines automatically. So you buy that and it's automatically on all your machines and then potentially on all your devices as soon as they sync.

Mark Shuttleworth

It's a very interesting kind of twist on the music store, the traditional music store capability, and it integrates those two elements very, very nicely. We see the file syncing capability as a general storage mechanism; and music content is just one kind of content that you might want to replicate. And we've taken some steps to make that attractive to people in terms of how that - how the music gets accounted for in your quota of storage and so on. So I think that will be very popular.

Jason Hiner

Yes, so that's an area where I think you guys are a little bit ahead. This has been a real big headache for iTunes users in terms of syncing different libraries, like with yourself and your spouse or your kids, that kind of thing. So that's a really interesting thing. Is there a multiple user angle on this?

Mark Shuttleworth

It's a really interesting question. I don't think we've nailed the full range of semantics that people might want to express in terms of how they share that data with other people, but in principle sharing is one of the basic primitives of the content store that Ubuntu One includes, so that will fall out quite naturally in good time.

Jason Hiner

And this is the kind of thing you're getting at in terms of Ubuntu One enabling this sort of fluidity of data with the store. Am I right? This is a good example of what you were talking about earlier?

Mark Shuttleworth

Very much so. And we expect that other people will build similar services that take advantage of Ubuntu One's store content replication capabilities. If you had any sort of content that you wanted to deliver to users, and you wanted to deliver it to all of the devices in their orbit, then Ubuntu One would be a very good transport, a very good way of doing that.

Jason Hiner

Okay, so we know, of course, that Ubuntu is open source, but are there APIs that make it easier for developers to tap into Ubuntu One?

Mark Shuttleworth

There are a set of APIs that are shipped as part of the standard desktop, and the existing Ubuntu One services use those. But third party developers are also capable of, and welcome to, use those. That would be again a focus for us, rounding out the portfolio of APIs. We've designed those APIs primarily to meet the requirements that we've articulated for Ubuntu One, but we expect that they will get fleshed out as third party developers start to use them and stretch them in new directions.

Jason Hiner

So, Mark, let's talk a little bit about the interface, because obviously, that's big. It's a big focus. you've talked about it in the past, about that being a real big part of Ubuntu and what separates Ubuntu is the "Linux for Human Beings" thing, [which] is about making the interface more accessible. I mean, you guys started this at a time when people had sort of given up on Linux on the desktop. And you guys really went at it with Ubuntu as a way of saying, "No, we can make this easy enough for everybody." So what have you done in 10.04, and what are the bigger goals that you're pushing for and how does [release] this help get you there?

Mark Shuttleworth

Well, the underlying commitment is to usability, to ease of use, to ease of discovery, to productivity, to making the platform something that you can share with confidence, and not just to your technology-savvy friends, but to anybody as a really constructive, positive replacement for whatever terrible experience they might already currently be having with their PC.

The various elements of that, some of them involve the way we are choosing applications, and so we made some tough choices in this round to go with simpler applications; applications that are more discoverable and easier for new users to use, especially around graphics and photo management. There's a sort of styling and visual element to that and so 10.04 represents the first step in a new direction for us where we use lights as the inspiration and we're really interested in the concept of "light" visually, and so that shows up in the look and feeling of the interface, but also in the idea of being light-weight, of being very agile, of being very fast, of starting very quickly, so Ubuntu in this latest release boots strikingly quickly. So there's a whole raft of inspiration there for us.

And then the final piece is about making it really easy for people to figure out how they can be productive on the platform. We've done a lot of work in this round focused on how people become aware of the state of their computer alongside to their current focused goals, so how they become aware of somebody messaging them or how they become aware of their network state, or changes in network state, the power state, and so on. That's an area that had really languished in Linux and so we decided to clean it up and get it right. There's still work to be done there, but I think we've made some very constructive first steps.

Jason Hiner

Tell us a little more about that. Give us some more examples of ways that you can see these things. You're talking about ways that you visually - a visual representation of your status or - you talked about this in relation to social networking status earlier. That's all part of this concept, right?

Mark Shuttleworth

Right. We've put a lot of work into what we call 'the indicators' which are that portion on the top right of the screen, of the Ubuntu screen, where we convey your network status, your presence online on various social network services, your battery, your power status, and we've introduced some new concepts there. For example, in order to reduce clutter, we're starting to create indicators of whole categories of capability; for example, one indicator for all of your different social network services, that they can all plug into. Part of that is just cleaning it up. That portion of the Linux desktop had become very full of personality — let's put it that way. And we're introducing a crispness and rigor to just the way it behaves and the expectations that people can have of the behavior of all the things that display themselves up there.

We also want to - so cleaning up is one big meme, but the other meme is introducing some innovation. And the key innovation for us in this cycle is the idea of category indicators, aggregated views of things like your connection status across multiple social networks, or your status across different messaging systems; whether or not someone sent you an email or an IRC or an SMS; aggregating all of that. And the result is just to give the whole - that portion of the desktop a much less cluttered, much cleaner feel.

Jason Hiner

Now you have publicly stated that your goal with Ubuntu is to serve consumers. You're trying to make this more friendly, more accessible to consumers in all the ways that we've talked about, but Ubuntu can also work for business users. And you do have - there are some things in Ubuntu that make it friendly for business users, for example, the Evolution client can connect to Exchange. And you have other business software that's open source that can sort of emulate some of the things that you would normally have in a business environment. Right? Are you seeing [business] customers, and how conscious are you of people that want to use this in business?

Mark Shuttleworth

Very conscious. Just stepping back from Ubuntu at the moment, I'd say that open source generally is experiencing a real surge forward in awareness and in adoption in a corporate environment. Partially, that's been a result of the focus on efficiency that we've seen in the enterprise over the last 18 months to two years, and partly it's just the natural consequence of people's growing comfort with solutions built on Linux, built on open source. So there are a lot of startups now that are specifically using open source as a way to penetrate the enterprise market, which is a fantastic shift. And of course, open source dominates things like cloud computing, if you look at what's actually running on EC2, what's actually running on Rackspace, it's largely running on Ubuntu and it's largely running workloads that themselves are built on Ubuntu, so I think those things are important leading indicators of what's going to happen in the enterprise.

On the desktop front, I think the growing prevalence of enterprise apps being exposed through the Web [browser] makes Ubuntu, and Linux generally, compelling solutions for fixed function workstations and desktops. Traditionally it was many, many Visual Basic apps that blocked people from adopting Linux and today with the fact that most of the Visual Basic apps are being replaced by Web applications, Linux suddenly becomes a compelling way to access those [apps] safely and cost-effectively. So we see continual deployments at substantial scale of Ubuntu as a desktop solution, but what's really attractive is the way - the emphasis on fast deployments and lean deployments is really driving people to Linux and to Ubuntu in the data center and on public clouds.

Jason Hiner

How so? Actually that's a perfect transition because you talked about the fact that as apps move to the Web, it becomes less important as to what [OS] you're running on the desktop. It can be Windows, it can be Mac, it can be Linux. Besides the fact that Linux as an open source is cheaper [because] you don't have to worry about licensing. It's not even just the cost of the licenses, but the cost of managing them gets quite difficult, steep right? Beyond that though, my question would be, it is the deployment issue - you know, one of the reasons Windows is popular is because IT can deploy it quite quickly in terms of imaging and unattended installations and all of this kind of backend IT stuff. Do you guys have tools and processes in place to do that kind of thing?

Mark Shuttleworth

Yeah, very much so. Bear in mind that the heritage of Ubuntu is Debian, which if you really want to think about it, it's sort of system administrator expertise distilled. It's Linux done the way large scale administrators would like it to be done, and as a result it's very modular, which means you end up deploying just the pieces that you really care about, which in turn means that you end up patching less, updating less, and having less in the way of a security cross section to worry about and less in the way of data to move around in a distributed virtual environment. So, all of those things are positives for us.

The challenges for us lie in certifications with the high end vendors for whom Ubuntu is a relatively new phenomenon and they take some time to become comfortable with it. But if you look at the actual volumes of deployments, those tend to be the minority rather than the majority. There are a helluva lot more J2EE Tomcat servers out there than there are databases running under a traditional legacy database. If we look at the move to the - the NoSQL movement, that's all about horizontal scalability, having thousands of light-weight servers that attack the data management problem differently to having the traditional approach of having one really expensive server. And so Ubuntu really suits the use case for people who are scaling horizontally, and so doing the data management with those newer, more light-weight, more innovative data persistence data model approaches.

Jason Hiner

Of course, Mark, we can't really talk about computing right now without taking about the tablet issue, so I'm going to transition into that for a second. Of course, Apple's released its iPad, which has sold over 1 million units in its first month, and other companies like ASUS and HP have similar touch-based tablets in the works. And these tablets are really a competitor to netbooks for light computing, in my book. And Ubuntu has a version for netbooks called Netbook Remix, so you guys already play in this light computing space. What do you think about touch-based tablets, and could you see this as an area where Ubuntu could move into in the future?

Mark Shuttleworth

Linux has traditionally been a hotbed of innovation. People often use Linux to prototype and to build new kinds of form factors and new concept devices. That's certainly true in this sort of wave of innovation around tablets as well. A lot of the tablet prototypes I've seen are running Linux in one form or another.

Jason Hiner

Yep, Android in a lot of cases.

Mark Shuttleworth

Android is a particularly potent contender in all of this. It's become very popular with the folks who are building out devices and so the skills base around Android has grown very quickly. I think the really important thing for us to do is to figure out how we can deliver the things that we deliver very well into those new markets, and so I'll just observe the things that we've invested in in this cycle are pieces that are common not only to the netbook and desktop but to lots of other kinds of devices as well. You know, you want to know your network connectivity status on all of those kinds of devices, and you also want to access social networks and the contents that underlies your social networking on all of those devices. So I think there's a trajectory that takes us onto those devices but it's not something that we're scrambling to respond to Apple around. We'll see how the first wave of Android and other Linux-based [tablets] does and we'll deliver versions of Ubuntu into the markets where there's proven volume.

Jason Hiner

How complicated would it be to translate Ubuntu to a touch-based interface, and have you guys done any work on that already?

Mark Shuttleworth

We did a small push around touch at the level of hardware enablement in 10.04. We identified a couple of the key manufacturers and in partnership with them in order to meet the needs of some of the OEMs, we made sure that the fundamental hardware enablement is there. The really interesting piece is in how you reshape the applications to work well in a touch environment.

Jason Hiner

True.

Mark Shuttleworth

And there's been relatively little work in that regard in the standard Linux space. I think that that will happen, but the transition to make it possible is only just beginning. There are a variety of technologies that are duking it out for primacy in that more visual user interface category. And we don't yet have a clear winner or direction. So our focus is on continuing to support the PC OEMs who are currently shipping desktops and netbooks, and in investing in the pieces that we think will be important once the tablet - once the hype has died down and we have a clear idea of what the consistent requirements are, I think we'll be able to deliver a version of Ubuntu specifically for those markets.

Jason Hiner

So beyond your role at Ubuntu, and more your role as a thinker and visionary in the computing space, do you envision touch taking off? What do you think about it? Is it something that interests you, and something that you really think has some legs? Or is it this - or is it still up in the air; basically, a little bit of a fad connected to smart phones and more aimed - more suited, I should say, to smaller devices? What do you think?

Mark Shuttleworth

I think touch itself is here to stay, and in fact, I think we'll see gesture based computing across the legacy form factors as well, traditional PCs there. There are some things that it just feels very natural to do that way. And while there are issues, we'll work through those issues. So, touch, I'm feeling confident in as a meme. My view on tablets is really just that we won't be able to deliver anything in the very, very short term; and therefore, we'd rather stay focused on the things where we know there's proven volume, and perhaps work on introducing touch in those categories like netbooks and desktops. And then once the tablet thing has shaken out, we'll be able to shape an offering there that we can proudly put the Ubuntu brand on.

Jason Hiner

Okay. Well, that's all we're going to have time for today, but for more on this topic and lots of other tech news and perspectives, you can go to zdnet.com and techrepublic.com. I'd like to thank our special guest, Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth, for being here today to talk about the release of Ubuntu 10.04. So, thanks, Mark. We appreciate your time.

Mark Shuttleworth

It was a pleasure. Nice to speak to you, Jason.

Jason Hiner

If you're interested in testing the latest version of Ubuntu, we'll put a link in the show notes. You can download it, and of course, because it's open source, you can run it for free.

You can find my blog, Tech Sanity Check at sanity.techrepublic.com and on Twitter, you can find me at twitter.com/jasonhiner. So thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

About

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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