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Ubuntu heads for the mainstream

Rogue distro goes commercial

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Google Trends is particularly unscientific. Many of those Vista searchers may be looking for beautiful views, and the Ubuntu seekers may be investigating the founding principles of post-apartheid South Africa.

"My interpretation of that is that our documentation sucks so badly that people have to search a lot..." jokes Shuttleworth.

Nonetheless, he feels he is backing a winner. "It will take me time to get this business to profitability," he concedes. But he still feels that Linux is the right horse to back. "I don't see any downward trend there. I see Linux continuing to grow."

Of course, Shuttleworth has no VC backers or shareholders to account to – with a £400m liquidity event already under his belt, he only has to please himself.

Of course, that's not strictly true – the Ubuntu project owes its success to the developers who put the project together, largely on a voluntary basis.

So keeping them onside and involved while Ubuntu makes the transition from underground distro to viable commercial operation will be a difficult but crucial task.

"One of the really interesting questions we got when we made the Sun announcement was, do you think it will hurt your community credentials if you start working with Sun, IBM, HP and so on?

"So it is very important to our business model that that not be the case. Because much of the value of Ubuntu lies in the fact that it's collaboratively produced with the community."

Shuttleworth's success in sustaining that community is as much down to his own laid-back charisma as it is to his deep pockets. But the corporate world has a way of sucking that out of people and communities. Balancing the needs of paying customers with the freewheeling spirit of an open source pioneer won't be easy.

Of course, Ubuntu does have one corporate user. A very high profile one, in fact – Google. So what about Goobuntu, the mysterious Linux distribution based on Ubuntu, currently spotted only inside the Googleplex?

"Goobuntu is simply their internal desktop platform. Obviously Linux makes sense for them. Their developers love it, they have plenty of expertise to manage it, and Goobuntu is the chosen platform for their developers. But there is a big difference between that and working on something that you are going to productise and ship out to the world," says Shuttleworth.

So we won't get our hands on Goobuntu any time soon?

"I don't see any indication at this stage that that is a real plan. They wouldn't have to tell me of course. The nature of free software is that they could complete a plan like that, develop it and execute it without us knowing."

Intriguing. Anyone hoping for the arrival of the longed-for Google OS shouldn't hold their breath. But the progress of Ubuntu will be well worth watching in the meantime.

Bootnote

In a feeble attempt to curry favour with the readership, Mr Shuttleworth claimed that he is an avid Register reader. He also revealed that he has some peculiar features in common with the Register's Otto Z Stern: "My prostate is made of opal – that story cracked me up," he confided. We believe this medical precaution is required for all amateur cosmonauts.

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