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<nettime> Six million CDs... a gift from Africa
Frederick Noronha (FN) on Sun, 29 Jan 2006 22:16:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Six million CDs... a gift from Africa


By Frederick Noronha

He became the first-ever Afronaut. But the debonair young
South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth has also
touched another high, by distributing for free six million
CDs of Free Software. He has posted these software tools to
enthusiasts across the globe, with the goal of planting new
ideas of sharing and creating knowledge. 

Shuttleworth started young -- programming on the Free
Software platform from the ages of 11 to 14. Then he took a
gap, and resumed from the age of 19. The high-profile sale of
his digital encription company, just before the dot-com bust,
was the source of his wealth, which he is ploughing back for
the further spread of Free/Libre and Open Source Software.

Shuttleworth (32) made his name through IT entrepreneurism,
and then attracted the headlines by joining a Russian space
expedition. But, in recent years he made big news by
promoting hisUbuntu distribution of the Free and Open Source
software. Ubuntu means "humanity towards others".

"(Distributing) CDs is a labour of love. We've touched six
million CDs distributed already," Shuttleworth told this
journalist in an interview, on a moonlight night on the banks
of Lake Victoria, Uganda. At this remote setting, he joined
an international camp to promote Free/Libre and Open Source
Software among not-for-profit organisations that is currently
underway (in mid-January 2006).

But is this sustainable? Can Ubuntu go on distributing CDs
indefinitely? Even postage is not charged for...

"I don't know if it is sustainable. At this stage I fund it
because I feel it's the right think to do. I owe a lot of my
wealth to the fact that Linux was there when I needed it.
Linux allowed me to build a business in Cape Town in the
midst of the dotcom boom," says Shuttleworth.

"My goal is to keep the (Ubuntu) software free. And free of
encumbents," he said. 

Recently, Ubuntu and its founder, Mark Shuttleworth, both won
awards at the Linux New Media Awards in late 2005 Linux World
Expo in Frankfurt, Germany. The Best Debian Derivative
Distribution award was judged by a 200-member international
jury from industry and the FLOSS community. This award
recognises the effort the Ubuntu team have put into working
with Debian in order to produce an easy-to-use desktop
environment, suitable for everyone.

"That was an honour," says Shuttleworth, in his modest style.

KUBUNTU, EDUBUNTU: Now, Ubuntu is spilling off into other

"We started with the single distro (Ubuntu), an what we are
trying to do is show you can produce a distro on the
six-month release schedule. And that you could make it very
usable and also keep it on to a single CD," says

Along the way, they "found" people were taking their work and
adapting in all kinds of different directions. They found
that GNOME was being replaced by KDE. "So, we support that
and call it Kubuntu," says Shuttleworth.

"We found people using Ubuntu a lot for education. Different
groups were adding on educational applications to it. By
creating the Edubuntu (project), that work is now being
shared (with others)."

What does he see as the biggest roadblocks in the wider
adoption of Free Software and Open Source worldwide?

Says Shuttleworth: "The biggest long-term constraint in the
adoption of Linux is the availability of skills. When people
talk of access to support, they're really referring to the
[limited amount of] pervasiveness of Linux skills in IT. The
good news is that because the software is freely available,
people can give themselves the skills quietly, because they
can get it (by learning on their own)."

Shuttleworth anticipates that at some "tippling point in the
future", once the availability of skills grow, all businesses
will add the possibility of offering Linux skills to the
proprietorial software-based Windows-skills they offer. Once
that happens, we could see a great acceptance for Linux, he

"We're entering a time where the functionality of Free
Software is pretty much on par with proprietorial software.
It's about the availability of skills, and also the
perception of the availability of these skills," says

TOUR OF ASIA: The Ubuntu team is planning to have business
tour around Asia in early 2006. Says Shuttleworth: "I'm
really looking forward to the visit. It's my first to India
(and many parts of Asia). We start off in Pakistan, and then
move to India, China, Japan, Korea, Sing pore, Indonesia and

"India is very interesting from an Open Source and Free
Software point of view. On the one side you have an
acknowledgment of the need for development, and the passion
and pride that comes from (achieving) in the world of
technology. One would think it would be fertile ground (for
non-proprietorial software). Surprisingly, India is a little
late in its adoption of Open Source," says Shuttleworth.

He believes that what we are seeing now is a rapid pendulum
swing. "I'm hoping we can help the swing of the pendulum. (In
Asia), I'll be visiting universities, companies that provide
professional services -- such as integration, business
process outsourcing -- as well as government officials," he

His visit takes him to India over two stretches, including
for the Linux Asia event held in New Delhi from February 8,
and also for another stint around mid-January.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES ON DEVELOPERS: Shuttleworth believes that
economic pressures could keep the 'developing' countries from
contributing more significantly to the Free Software world.

He says, "In wealthier countries, you can often find folks
who can take a personal decision to fore-go their personal
income in view of values of Free Software. It's that maybe
that has made it difficult for the young Indian software
enthusiast to throw themselves into the Free Software world."

As we talk, a young tech enthusiast from Africa wants to know
if their continent could "learn lessons from India". Says
Shuttleworth: "What India has going for it, is its scale.
Africa is fragmented by national boundaries. It's hard to
build something that is genuinely African. To get bandwidth
between Uganda and South Africa just imaging the amount of
hurdles and regulation one has to go through."

Shuttleworth believes India encouraged the early adoption of
ICTs (information and technologies for communication) and
helped investments in field. "Today India is reaping the
rewards of those involvements," says he.

"Africa could do very well in competition with India, if we
got our act together. We all have the time-zone advantage,
since our time is same as Europe's. We also speak major
European languages," says he.

EDUCATION, FUNDAMENTAL: Education is fundamental to economic
growth, he argues, bring in his social perspective into
business. He sees it as the "fundamental investment you make
in your people". 

Economics of the 21st century all about either massive scale
or sophistication, in his world-view. "It's very hard to
compete with China on scale. You can compete in terms of
knowledge and specialist," he adds.

For a 32-year-old, he seems to have given away a significant
amount of his wealth to philanthropy. ("The more he gives
away, the more his net worth increases," says Ugandan IT
professional James Wire.)

Shuttleworth calculates that he gives away six million
dollars each year to the foundation he set up. (In fact, you
can just log onto the internet website
http://shipit.ubuntu.com and ask for free GNU/Linux CDs from
here, for instance. You not only get the CDs for free, but
even the postage is paid for.) Ubuntu Linux costs him ten
million dollars a year. "That is not all in philanthropy. I
hope Ubuntu would become viable one day," says he.

Says he: "My real passion is the Ubuntu project. I love the
project. Enjoy working on it. Meeting community developers.
Maybe we're just the right thing at the right time. We came
and focussed on the desktop just when all the desktop pieces
started falling in place. We cant' take credit (for its
speedy succes)." He sees its special worth coming from its
"straightforwardness, ease of installation, and ease of use".
"Our community is very very strong", as he puts it.

Ubuntu's biggest user-base today is in the US, which
Shuttleworth finds amazing. "Only one country which is very,
very strange. Japan is very, very small in terms of acceptance
of Ubuntu," says he. "Hopefully we can keep Red Hat honest,"
he says, referring to the giant GNU/Linux distribution and
its move-away from supporting a free distribution.

Says he: "I think Microsoft has every right to charge for
their software. They wrote 99 per cent of it. They genuinely
own the code they're selling. With Ubuntu we write a tiny
fraction of it. The cost of producing that CD are largely
borne by other people giving of their time. Therefore it
makes sense that the revenue structure should be very
different as well. We're trying to build a business model. I
don't know if it will succeed. My goal is to make is
sustainable, without charging for it."

Ubuntu started less than two years ago. For the first six
months it was "quiet", he says.

Shuttleworth is quick to point to the achievements on the
GNU/Linux front. "We have stuff like (the the e-education
platform) Moodle which is coming along very quickly. But it's
server-based. You're not conscious of the fact that your
using Linux. Where Linux has huge advantages are your ability
to do thin client solutions -- it gives you massive cost
advantages," he says.

EDUCATION: Shuttleworth sat beneath an African half-moon,
with tall trees overlooking, as he discussed with young
people from his continent on how students needed more
educational software, and about what glitches they perceive
as needed to smoothen out wider adoption of Free Software.

He says he looks forward to broaden his philantrophic
activities from education in Africa -- its current focus --
to other activities as well. "But it (the Shuttleworth
Foundation) needs to get very credible in education, before
we move ahead," he says. "It's difficult to manage...
specially when you're fighting too many learning curves at
the same time."

He explains that they've started a project to produce
computer-based curriculum for students aged 8 to 18 in
Africa. "We are not producing maths teachers in South Africa
now. It's getting harder and harder to find a good maths
teacher in South Africa. Why do we teach maths in school?
It's because we need to produce analytical skills. It really
helps, even if all of us don't remember our high school
mathematics," he says.

BIGGER HIGH: What gives him a bigger high: going to outer
space at the cost of millions of dollars aboard a Russian
spacecraft, or promoting GNU/Linux from the heart of South

Shuttleworth laughs: "Actually, doing Ubuntu has a lot to do
with going to outer space. Space is such is such a incredible
environment, people are so fascinated by it. So, after you've
been one, it becomes very difficult to anything but be an
astronaut. So when I came back (from outer space) I decided
to look around and find something that would be really hard,
really interesting and make a big impact in the world. It
took me a while to do it."

But when he found it, it was Ubuntu. "Both give me a high for
different reasons. Space was a high for me; I spent that
money for myself. Ubuntu is for everybody".

Why does he call his user-friendly distribution "Linux for
human beings", I asked. Back home in India, this tag-line
always seems to attract attention in geek circles.

"It's a little cheek. It's also aimed at the idea that Linux
(traditionally) hasn't been people friendly. Ubuntu is built
for people, not for techies. But at the same time. you want a
project which is attractive to developers. Or you don't get
all that love, collaboration and Free Software development.
It's a fine line."

BUSINESS OR SOFTWARE: What's more difficult, developing
software or dabbling in the world of business, as a

"I don't think I'm that good at either," he says, with the
understatement that runs through our exchange. "I love
software development. I enjoyed the clarity of thought it
required. The intensity of the experience. It involves diving
into a problem, mentally organising yourself, and producing
code that gives a solution. I also enjoy working with the
different kind of relations that go into a business."

Why is his work based out of Africa? "Africa is important to
me; it's important to the world, I think. Open Source is one
of the key drivers for change in today's world. To leapfrog
and build an infrastructure for us. Putting those two
together, it's the right place at this time. I'm sorry I
can't be at this camp (Africa Source II, which has been meant
to encourage non-profit groups use Free Software) for the
whole week. Conversations here are fascinating."

FAST CARS, FAST WOMEN: Sometime in the past, Shuttleworth had
jokingly said he could have splurged his money on "fast cars
and fast women". When reminded, he laughs: "That's Plan B. If
I fail, maybe I go back to it."

He sees the development of Free Software and Open Source as a
"genuine post-capitalist model". Says he: "Some say it's
communist. But it's a lot about people collaborating at one
level, while still competing at another. In a lot of areas of
technology, it doesn't make sense to try and differentiate
(and compete) on everything."

Shuttleworth believes we're going to see "that spirit of
collaboration" spreading not just in Free Software, but also
in the media. He cites the example of collaborative online
media tools such as Slashdot and podcasting.

"Fpr the first time, both the skills and the tools to
practice the tools can be accessed together. To me it's a
fundamental change in the industry. It remains to be see if
it will become the defacto way of the (software) industry (to
work in the future). My instinct tells me this could happen."

Contacts: mark at ubuntu.com
Frederick 'FN' Noronha  | Yahoomssngr/Skype: fredericknoronha
Saligao, Goa, India     | fred {AT} bytesforall.org
Independent Journalist  | +91(832)2409490 Cell 9822122436

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