Mark Shuttleworth on patents, tablets and the future of Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth (image: Martin Schmitt)

TechCentral editor Duncan McLeod caught up with Mark Shuttleworth, the man behind Ubuntu Linux, on Thursday and asked him about the future of Linux, patent battles in the software industry, his views on Apple and his future plans. This is a slightly edited transcript of that interview.

Duncan McLeod: Looking at all the software patent battles that are going on in the industry at the moment between Apple and Microsoft and Google and Samsung and HTC and so on, what is your view of the situation?

Mark Shuttleworth: The patent system is often misunderstood. It’s sold as a way of giving the little guy an opportunity to create something big … when in fact patents don’t really work that way at all.

What they do very well is keep the big guys entrenched and the little guys out. For example, it’s very common in established industries for all of the majors to buy up or file as many patents as they can covering a particular area. They know and accept that the other majors are all in the same industry and essentially cross-license each other to keep the peace within that defined market. But they use that arsenal to stop new entrants coming in and disrupting the market.

That’s almost the exact opposite of the way people think about the patent system. They think it’s supposed to catalyse disruption and innovation, but in reality it has the opposite effect.

What we’re seeing in the mobile space is that game being played out at large because Google is trying to disrupt that cosy ecosystem by entering the market with a product [Android] that is highly disruptive. And it’s disruptive to all of the majors, so what you’re seeing is this cascading series of suits and countersuits.

None of it is particularly constructive and it’s hugely expensive, often at the cost of end users who don’t have the real range of choice they should have.

DM: Does there need to be reform of the global patents system?

MS: Absolutely. I’ve long said that and motivated for that reform. The patents system was originally designed to encourage disclosure. It comes from an era, hundreds of years ago, when innovation was kept secret and kept inside family businesses for many generations. There was a recognition that if you could publish information, then other people might innovate on top of the original idea.

Patents were essentially a trade for disclosure of an idea that created a good for society in exchange for a short-term monopoly.

Two things have happened in modern times. Firstly, you can’t keep secrets anymore. These days, everything can be reverse engineered. Secondly, the definitions of protection have been expanded, so it’s not good for society. You’re not really gaining disclosure you would have got anyway, and in the process you’re helping sustain cartel-type behaviours in just about every industry, but especially in technology.

DM: What has you fired up about Linux and open-source software at the moment?

MS: First, cloud computing and the way it is flattening enterprise infrastructure and the way people think about architecture.

The other thing that’s really interesting is all the innovation around mobile computing. Linux in the form of Android is very much present here.

DM: Ubuntu has adopted a new user interface called Unity. That seems well suited to tablet devices. Is this part of a plan to extend Ubuntu on tablets and other mobile computing and touch-based platforms?

MS: We haven’t said that, and it’s not the right time for me to say any such thing. [Laughs.] But if you look at it, Unity is born of an era where touch is important, and we’ve done quite a bit of work around touch generally and it brings a level of clarity and device-like simplicity to Linux desktops that just hadn’t been there before.

DM: Unity has attracted a fair share of criticism.

MS: Sure, it created something of a storm. The idea for us was we wanted to bring design-led engineering to the Linux desktop so we followed a fairly rigorous process of design. That meant testing assumptions and evaluating each little change on the basis of some realistic test of how people reacted to change. It is a fairly radical shift from where we were previously but we can see a fairly clear roadmap of where we want to get to over the next few months and years and not all of that is evident in the release so far.

[Unity] has raised the bar for usability on the Linux desktop. That’s not to say it’s without its issues. There are some quite definite issues in that first release, but when we did a detailed review of that versus the alternatives, it came out well ahead. It was the right one for us to ship at the time.

DM: Where is Ubuntu going in terms of the user interface?

MS: Unity is our platform now and we will iterate around what you see now. I won’t speculate now about which sectors we’ll get into and when we’ll do them, but it’s quite clear personal computing is no longer bound to the desktop and so we have to respond to that. If we want to bring Linux to everyday computing, we have to be where everyday computing is happening.

DM: Is there demand for Ubuntu on other computing form factors, given how popular Android has become?

MS: Only time will tell. Android is a fantastic offering. It has a genuinely open-source code base. Of course, it’s development is tightly controlled by Google, but it is open source so people can take it off in different directions and they do just that. So, I think it’s a huge victory for those of us who have been of the view that open source was the right platform for innovation.

Open source flattens a lot of those walls that companies create around themselves and it creates a level of competition that is in the true spirit of innovation rather than the old-fashioned patents approach. For those of us passionate about getting open source in people’s hands, Android is a tremendous leap forward.

At the same time, there is a good deal of concern about the amount of information Google has access to in terms of people’s personal data and Android greatly expands that. Competition is good, so I think there may be opportunities for other players in that segment.

DM: I don’t want to push you too much on this, but are you actively developing software for new platforms like tablets or has that decision not been made yet?

MS: We’ve made no comment on that. There are a number of people who are using Ubuntu to make tablets and other device experiences, but that’s some step removed from a formal Ubuntu version for those form factors.

Right now, our focus is on polishing the desktop experience. We think that for all the excitement around tablets, most people will continue to use keyboards for real, productive work. We need a keyboard-based experience that really rocks. People who go rushing into the tablet business are going to lose money. There are few experiences out there that can compete with the iPad.

DM: Speaking of Apple, the company can seem to do no wrong at the moment. Its market capitalisation has just gone past Exxon Mobil’s. What are your views of the company?

MS: I’m short Apple. It’s an extraordinary success story, but nobody defies gravity indefinitely. I think this is probably the time Apple will be of its greatest influence. It’s in everyone’s crosshairs now. Its cash position makes it incredibly potent, and it has established itself in some really important ecosystems. How long Apple can play that out is difficult to tell?

DM: Is Apple the new Microsoft? In the 1990s, Microsoft was almost untouchable.

MS: Microsoft was untouchable and unloved. It was popular to hate Microsoft’s products for 15 years before the company suddenly looked vulnerable. I don’t think we’re there yet with Apple by any means. People do like the company’s products, and with good reason.

DM: How is the Linux business model working for Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux? Does it make money yet?

MS: Canonical still requires ongoing investment but the business model is improving. This is predicated on the fact that the Linux market has grown so much. Also, business models are moving on from the licensing approach. What makes Android so unpopular [among Google’s rivals] is that Google doesn’t sell it, it has other ways of monetising it. I feel pretty confident in those principles.

How things will play out at Canonical is a different matter. Your crystal ball is probably as good as mine on that. Nevertheless, it’s where I devote my time. We’ve seen a fairly dramatic uptick in corporate adoption of Ubuntu on a paid basis, where they are buying services from Canonical to support deployments of 5, 10 or 50 thousand desktops and other devices. Though Ubuntu is free, companies see the value in engaging commercially with the company that makes it, essentially.

On the cloud computing front, in terms of our positioning, Ubuntu is by far the most popular operating system on all of the public clouds, which puts us at the centre of all the innovation that is happening there. It’s also being used in all sorts of places where people are innovating on the client side as well. These things are all positive signs and they sustain my interest in the project.

DM: Do you think the Linux and open-source community still has the passion it did a few years ago?

MS: That’s an interesting one. In a sense, open source underpins all the innovation that is happening. It fully underpins cloud computing and underpins things like Android and even a lot of Apple, where [parts of] the core operating system and core of the browser are based on open source.

Open source has accelerated innovation and change and dynamism in the industry. But it’s also true that in a world where people are using the Web more and more, they don’t have the same sense of the terms and conditions attached to the software itself, so licensing is becoming less and less relevant, whether its free licensing or non-free licensing. You don’t have a sense of a big divide between the two. Everyone has access to the Web, so there is a dynamic there. The traditional software portions of the open-source world must decide what role they want to play and what’s important and exciting for them.

DM: Lastly, what are your future plans?

MS: I maintain a strong interest in Africa. I am well invested in Africa, outside of SA. Once we’ve settled this global economic turmoil … people will think again about what the real engines of growth are … and this is the move from chaos to stability, and Africa is the prime candidate for that move. That captures a fair amount of my attention. For the rest, I just get old ungraciously and that’s about it.

  • Mark Shuttleworth image credit: Martin Schmitt — (licensed under Creative Commons)

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  • Nick Yeates

    I own Apple stock, yet I am an open source community manager and transparency advocate. The interview above is helping me to come to grips with my juxtaposition.

    I agree that Apple cant defy gravity for forever… the key is spotting that turn around point 2-5+ yrs in the future, and ridding of Apple for the closed, secretive, patent-loaded monster that it is.

    We wont experience a sea change until open source delivers the smooth, thoughtful, “just works” user-experience that Apple does… when that begins to happen, Apple is in freefall.

    Also, current patent system == nasty. Are there movements that we can get behind for patent reform?

  • Anonymous

    Good answers from Mark. I really hope Ubuntu gets more funding so it can improve more rapidly.

  • elimisteve

    I don’t like it either, but if this is what it takes for Ubuntu to be very tablet-ready in 9 months from now (or however long it takes), I’m in.

  • Anon

    Patents are no longer necessary, if they ever were. Once an idea’s time has come (i.e., the necessary prerequisites exist), it will be discovered by a continual stream of people or oganisations. Granting a 20 year monopoly is counterproductive and just retards innovation for the next 20 years.

  • Albert Willis

    It must be nice to have money to burn, since he’s certainly has lost a lot of it being short Apple.

    And for him to believe that Apple is at its peak of influence is sort of laughable. Even with over 200 million iOS devices sold, they are only just getting started; the worldwide opportunity is much bigger than most people understand.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I’d agree with Apple being near their peak; their market-share in established territories is pretty flat, and they’re having to expand to new territories to get customers.  This was quite apparent with their last earnings, which were amazing, but didn’t make the stock price shoot up as usual, when they revealed that they had to expand to China to make the numbers. 

    So if they’ve hit saturation point in established markets, and are running out of billion-dollar markets to expand to, then they’ll need something special to get another turbo boost in profits.  iPad’s doing okay for now, but Android is catching up fast, and in Q2’2011 win8 tablets will hit the market like a ton of bricks and devour massive chunks of marketshare.

    Remember that Apple is primarily a cellphone company (>50% of profits come from iPhone hardware), and that’s a very fickle market that changes annually.  At some point iPhones will lose favour, it’s obvious they can’t be favourites forever, and a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    The problem is, by the time Ubuntu’s ready for tablets, the world will have moved on; Win8 will have its metro-style tablet UI, and an established standard and Linux will once again be left in the dust, in its constant catch-up cycle.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really want Linux to do well, but it seems that everyone doing anything with Linux is constantly chasing the leaders in that respective market, they don’t seem to have the ability to step back, innovate and try and get ahead of the market.

  • Anonymous

    but the one doing catch up now is microsoft to google’s android.

    The metro ui thing doesnt look too bad, but that doesnt mean it will get mass adoption. It could become a total flop like other past msft products… (you know them :D )

    Anyway microsft has never had to compete before and things are looking harder and harder for them.

    yes, desktop linux is in a transition right now and is pretty messy, but is getting sorted out and the features and stability coming will make it one of the best platforms to use (on par with the “commercial” offerings).

    Is not going to death throne anyone yet, but is becoming the solid alternative that its founders had always envisioned.

  • Anonymous

    specially the features coming will make it a good UI to use

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Microsoft isn’t playing catch-up to Android. When they saw they were behind, they took a conscious decision to sit out an entire cycle of the Tablet and Phone OSes, and to get ahead of the game.  A very risky decision, and one that Ballmer has caught a lot of flak for, but I believe it was the right thing to do.  The tablet market’s new enough to delay entry into it for a year, and the phone market works on 2 year cycles, so you can never be “too late” into that, any great product stands a chance.

    It’s clear this strategy is working with WP7 – there’s an amazing response to it and a lot of goodwill piling up, and hopefully it pays off and gets them customers.  Same goes for Win8, instead of doing what others did – scaling mobile platforms up to tablets, they scaled a desktop OS down to tablets and waited for the hardware market to catch up.  It’s a far better long-term plan. 

    Win8 is pretty much guaranteed mass adoption, for better or worse.  With a billion Windows users, even a tiny percentage adopting it will yield mass adoption relative to the number of tablet users at the moment.

    >> but is getting sorted out and the features and stability coming will make it one of the best platforms to use (on par with the “commercial” offerings).
    I agree 100%, BUT the problem is it’ll be on a par with today’s commercial offerings, when it launches months from now.  The market will have moved on, and the catch-up cycle resumes.

  • Anonymous

    Apple the company is certainly unloved by very many people, despite their products being loved.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a gap between what is said here about unity and what it actually does.

    “We need a keyboard-based experience that really rocks” yet Unity broke ùmost of my custom keyboard shortcuts and I can’t seem to find anything anymore.

  • Anonymous

    To second that I’d say that there are more non apple products users that hate it than miscrosoft products user that hated microsoft back in the 90’s

  • Pete Griffiths

    It is not true that you can’t keep secrets anymore.  If you develop something and keep it as a trade secret server side like google’s search algorithm(s) then there is no way for someone to reverse engineer it.

  • Vlad Lazarenko

    I hear you, my friend. I’ve just disabled it, why don’t you do the same?

  • Anonymous

    If getting the idea to actually work requires a large expense but can then be copied easily, then not providing protection will delay the initial implementation until costs go down, which means we will get the same advancements, but possibly only decades after they were possible.

  • xpress razor

    Dependency of Ubuntu with the Linux Kernel has made the Desktop Experience not work out of the box. Same with other (Xorg, graphics card vendors). When hardware manufacturer’s bring a hardware, what Linux does over the time that hardware becomes old is keep on making changes to improving those experience from ground up. It takes for a user with fairly new hardware at least 6 months to have a usable system with Linux. When people start to feel their hardware is going to be supported fully, whole ecosystem breaks and they move on past your hardware to support something new entering an infinite loop of giving half-baked software experience. Either kernel should be developed in tight integration for at least 6 months(as google) when new hardware arrive. If kernel is very general, Ubuntu should develop on tight integration with their hardware vendors. If my dell or hp laptop is not going to have same or better experience in ubuntu than in windows, I am never going to use ubuntu as the major part of my Desktop experience. For new people to expand and innovate on this open source environment it has to work on the basic level of out of the box experience, else users will always feel alienated. For unity(graphics software using GPU) to take off at least the graphics cards should work on full throttle with Ubuntu.  In case of Linux I had this problem(black screen of death) for past 7 years, whether it be the latest hardware or old. This has to work, else it will always discourage people to write games, softwares(using high graphics) on Linux. If kernel’s design methodology is blocking this, it has to change, if ubuntu is doing it without working with products of its partner it has to change. I think 6 month release cycle of Ubuntu, is to fast for hardware and driver software to settle down to be fairly usable.

  • xpress razor

    I am a fairly technical user, so I can live only on terminals for days without requiring a GUI. My question is that, why would anyone want to have propitiatory software(like Photoshop) on Linux.  If they want Photoshop so badly, then why do they want the operating system to be free? Why would people want to use Linux in the first place(besides technical users)? Is it cost of Operating System(100 dollars) and still want to buy Photoshop on Linux? Is it virus? Is it hardware support? Is it Anti-Microsoft mindset? What would we benefit if Linux has 98% market share and all the software we will be using is Photoshop, paid games and etc? What if only better free software we will get from Linux in those day will be a text editor(vi, emacs), some music players(gstreamer) etc? Why photoshop would want to compile its software(opengl, mac) and produce a Linux binary?

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    That’s a good point.  OS cost is fairly inconsequential in the big picture, and protecting against AV and Malware is free and easy these days.  The case for Linux on the desktop gets less and less as time goes by.

    If we want a real Windows contender, we’d need Apple to add better driver support and allow OSX to be installed on any hardware.  But the chance of that happening is zero, when Apple even try and obsolete their own hardware after a few years!

  • Elcondor1008

    Good points and good job that Marc is doing.
    All the best,

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