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Shuttleworth steps down as Canonical CEO

Remains Ubuntu 'benevolent dictator'

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Mark Shuttleworth - the billionaire founder of the Ubuntu Linux project that was started in 2004 and the chief executive officer of Canonical, the company that provides support and services for Ubuntu - is apparently sick of paperwork.

Starting on March 1 next year, Jane Silber - one of the earliest employees Shuttleworth hired at Canonical and the chief operating officer of the company for the past several years - will assume the role of CEO.

In a conference call with the press, Shuttleworth wanted to ensure that everyone understood that both he and Silber have shared power in terms of running Canonical and various projects over the past five years and that he was in no way, shape, or form backing away from Ubuntu.

In reference to his title as "self-appointed benevolent dictator for life," Shuttleworth laughed and said "it is a life sentence and I remain undaunted and that remains unchanged." While Shuttleworth has plenty of experience managing the day-to-day operations of a company - he made his dough establishing digital certificate and security company Thawte, which he sold to VeriSign in 1999 for $575m - he got into Linux to change the operating system market for desktops and servers, not to do meetings.

And Shuttleworth is rich enough to support Ubuntu Linux, pay for a trip to the International Space Station, and pay someone else he trusts and works well with to run the company while he focuses on strategy and development. (If you are not made at least a little jealous by that, check your pulse).

"This keeps me closer to the pieces I am more interested in," Shuttleworth explained, saying that he has no other business engagements outside of Canonical and wasn't planning any and that this was a "natural evolution" of Canonical and not "an abrupt change" in the way the company will be run. "Ubuntu remains my primary focus," Shuttleworth said, adding that he would concentrate on Canonical's overall strategy, product development, and interface with OEM partners and end user customers.

"Every organization goes through stages of growth," said Shuttleworth. "I have a general guiding principle that the folks that work with me rotate through jobs every five year, seven years at the outset."

Silber has been a software developer and senior manager at an unnamed Japanese technology company and worked at US defense contract General Dynamics as vice president of command and control systems at its C4 Systems subsidiary. Silber, who is an American, has degrees from Haverford College and Vanderbilt University and came to Oxford University in 2002 to get an MBA and took a position at Canonical and has remained in England since then. In addition to being COO, Silber has headed up the Ubuntu One storage utility project, and in the past, she has been involved with mundane tasks such as OEM services, marketing, finance, and legal.

In a blog post, Shuttleworth and Silber said the change would leave a cleaner break between the head of the Ubuntu project and the person running Canonical. Interestingly, Matt Zimmerman, the chief technology officer for the Ubuntu distribution, reports to Silber, not Shuttleworth. So Shuttleworth will influence Ubuntu from the community side, and Zimmerman will influence it from the Canonical side. (I think we can guess who will win most arguments, but then again, open source software is supposed to be a meritocracy).

Shuttleworth also said that he had considered going outside for a new CEO, but that Silber's "background, experience with Canonical, and the skills she brings to the table are exactly what Canonical needs at this point." Between now and March, when Silber takes over as CEO, the company will be doing an internal and external review of candidates to take over as COO of Canonical and the head of the Ubuntu One service.

Shuttleworth said that he was still perfectly happy to be patient and allow Canonical to reach profitability by becoming a true platform provider and would continue to invest to make Ubuntu a true platform, not just an operating system for a PC or a server. "My expectation was that it would take seven years to build a credible enterprise platform," Shuttleworth said. "We still have some time to go before we are at the heart of the data center." But progress has been made. Ubuntu 9.10 has integrated cloud computing based on KVM and Eucalyptus, and Ubuntu is the most popular platform on Amazon's EC2 utility.

Tongues will certainly wag that Silber's appointment as CEO is some precursor to an initial public offering or an acquisition, with the companying tightening up its books and processes ahead of such a move. While Shuttleworth said this is often the case, such talk was "pure speculation," and it was really about letting Shuttleworth do the big picture while Silber copes with the details. He said Silber's appointment was certainly not a precursor to any aggressive cost cutting or a push towards profitability, which Canonical has not attained after five years.

Shuttleworth said that Canonical's three lines of business - selling support to OEMs, pushing clouding infrastructure services, and selling support for servers - were all growing businesses, and the important server support biz had "margins that continue to improve." Still, Canonical is in business to make money as well as make a difference. "We are not profitable, but we continue to believe we are on the right track for that." ®

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