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Ubuntu heads for the mainstream

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Interview Mark Shuttleworth, millionaire cosmonaut and self-funded Linux guru, has managed to make his Ubuntu project the Linux distribution of choice in just two years. But now the friendly brown OS with the cute drumming noises faces an awkward journey towards the commercial mainstream.

Ubuntu has had quite a ride in those two years. By many benchmarks, it's the most popular Linux flavour there is. It's top of the Distrowatch download chart, and it's the distro most frequently installed on Dell PCs – according to Michael Dell himself.

But while it has achieved a certain mindshare among the initiated, it still hasn't quite broken through to the corporate server room, or the desktops of average Joes.

Mr Shuttleworth also has a distant intention, somewhere in the future, of recouping some of the $10m a year he funnels into Ubuntu, and trying to turn it into some kind of profitable business.

"We are in this delicate transition phase from being something that's entirely community orientated to something that has this professional wing. So that's something that we have to steer very carefully," he says.

In May, Ubuntu inked its first major server deal. Sun announced a deal with Shuttleworth's company, Canonical, that would make Ubuntu the only OS (other than Solaris) to be supported on Sun's UltraSPARC T1 processor chip.

Ubuntu has also started to appear pre-installed on PCs – from the Singapore-based company, Esys - which will be a crucial step in taking Ubuntu to people who don't have the skills to install it themselves.

Shuttleworth is now focusing his own attention away from the core business of building the distro, to improving some of the peripheral services which will make it a more professional operation.

"I now have confidence in the distro team to drive the distro without me, which means that I can spend more time on other aspects of the project and part of those are support operations, part of those are training operations, part of those is documentation," he says.

These are the elements which will help to establish Ubuntu as a viable alternative to Red Hat and SuSE for corporate customers. They're also things people pay for, so that might help to kickstart some kind of a revenue stream.

When it comes to actual usage figures, though, things are a little vague. A free product produces no sales figures. Shuttleworth has previously estimated the user base to be between 2m and 6m, but didn't want to volunteer an estimate to The Register. Instead, he points to Google trends, which records how many searches users have been making for the word "Ubuntu".

As the chart shows, Ubuntu has been seeing a steady growth of interest, and a strong peak in June, following the release of the latest version, 6.06 "Dapper Drake", and the Sun announcement.

Ubuntu is now receiving more than half as many searches as Vista, which would certainly be impressive if it translated directly to the user base. But, of course, life isn't that simple.

It's almost like a late '90s dot-com business plan – stand in front of a slide of any random upwardly-curving graph, and invite your audience to assume that your revenues/profits/share price/yacht fund will adopt the same pattern.

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