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Ubuntu man challenges open source to out-pretty Apple

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OSCON Billionaire, cosmonaut and founder of the fast-growing Ubuntu Linux distro Mark Shuttleworth dreams impossible dreams.

No, not a return to the stars. He believes in something that's far harder for mortal open source engineers to achieve.

That dream? To produce a desktop more beautiful to ordinary users than legions of Apple programmers supping on the milk of chief exec Steve Jobs' alleged brilliance are capable of producing. That includes a desktop not funded by a clutter of annoying banner or Flash-based ads, but paid for by subscription-based services.

Now you're done dreaming, go home and code for the victory.

In a Tuesday evening O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) keynote, Shuttleworth called on delegates to make a concerted effort not just to catch Apple but to overtake the company in the quality of the desktop experience they deliver users.

His company Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial sponsor, is working to make the Ubuntu desktop "more beautiful" in the next two years, he told OSCON.

"I think the great task in front of us in the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something stable and usable and not pretty, to something that's art," Shuttleworth said.

"Think of the way the iPhone uses a pure software experience, it abstracts away all the hardware," he said. "You can paint anything on the screen because it's all software."

There is the tiny question of funding open-source development. Shuttleworth noted the demand is clearly there from companies and individuals for open-source software, but where the money comes from to support such efforts is not clear.

The noise machine of Web 2.0 and software-as-a-service (SaaS) is all about ads-based revenue. Even mighty companies such as Microsoft are willing to stuff their software full of ads, which are irritating to users and cause distractions. Just for the chance to get online ads dollars.

Carrying the banner of the TiVo generation, Shuttleworth dismissed placement of ads in desktop software as "offensive". He suggested ISVs should make money doing a little hard work selling services, instead.

"There is an emerging emphasis on services - that is the engine to invest in free software applications," he said. "We [Canonical] are hiring guys to work on the desktop... the rationale is online services. This must be a shared platform."

According to Shuttleworth, open source provides unparalleled opportunities to generate wealth and create change through innovation. He supported open-source projects like Firefox, which rely on plug-ins to harness other people's ideas and extend the underlying platform.

He warned that a few challenges exist on the road to greater innovation, wealth and social change via open source.

Platform, tolerance and Linux

First, there's a need for "platform tolerance". Open source must figure out how to work with rather than exclude those on Windows. "While we can all be focused on making Linux the winning platform, we need to think about how we work with other people who work across multiple platforms," he said.

Open source needs the participation of non-experts using tools that are simple enough for non-rock star developers to use. "The bulk of participants in free software projects come from people around the core... We sometimes focus on the rock stars. Choosing tools in our projects that make it easy for people to get stuff done and get out is a winning strategy," Shuttleworth said.

He also returned to a familiar theme of greater cooperation between disparate projects. Coordination of releases would be beneficial in cases where there are interdependencies, reducing bugs, helping produce a general open-source platform that could bring open source to the attention of the world at large.

"Imagine if we could talk in particular about the summer 2009 release, and there'd be differences in the platform. To be able to have this pulse across the entire free software ecosystem - how would that elevate the awareness we could generate in the rest of the world?" he asked. ®

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