Episode 14: Canonical – The Company Behind Ubuntu with Mark Shuttleworth
Mark Shuttleworth is the Founder and CEO of Canonical, the creator and maintainer of Ubuntu Linux. One of the most popular platforms for cloud servers, desktops, and IoT devices, Ubuntu is the operating system of choice for new development. In this episode, Mark discusses the business model of Canonical and trends in the open source ecosystem, like the acquisition of Red Hat by IBM and the challenges of open source licensing.
Michael Schwartz: Welcome to episode 14 of Open Source Underdogs, the podcast where the Founders of open source software companies tell us how they achieved escape velocity.
As the Gluu World Tour extended to month four, we visited Cape Town, South Africa, and we’re honored to get a chance to interview Mark Shuttleworth, Founder and CEO of Canonical.
In the ‘90s, Mark founded Thawte, a certification authority, subsequently acquired by VeriSign for around half a billion dollars.
Not content to sit on a beach, Mark then pursued one of his lifelong dreams – space.
After training for a year, he became the world’s second self-funded space tourist and the first South African in space, blasting off on the Russian Soyuz TM-34 space mission.
But perhaps his most enduring contribution was still yet to come.
Mark embarked on a mission to bring Ubuntu Linux to the world. Canonical is the business behind Ubuntu.
Canonical is a fascinating business. It’s forged a powerful business model. For a large business, it’s surprisingly exploitation free.
Without outside investors pushing him for short-term gains, Mark has a freedom to pursue a truly long-term strategy.
Although how Canonical got started probably can’t be replicated, Mark has some deep insights into the open source ecosystem. And just like any business advice, take it with a grain of salt, but some of it you can hopefully repurpose for your challenges.
So enough of my blabbering, let’s cut to the tape.
How Was Space Like Entrepreneurship?
Michael Schwartz: Mark, thank you so much for joining me today.
Mark Shuttleworth: It’s a pleasure.
Michael Schwartz: My first question is a space question. Did your experience preparing for an undertaking a space mission change your approach on entrepreneurship?
Mark Shuttleworth: I guess I’d put it the other way around. I think my experience with entrepreneurship before going to space shaped the way I put together a space mission.
There were a lot of entrepreneurial elements to the way we put that project together, and being younger than the typical astronaut, cosmonaut, coming from a commercial background, having had to sort of drive a small business.
It was a lot of those skills mapped into negotiating with the various agencies and groups that were responsible for Russian space flight, telling the story of what we were trying to do, building a community around the mission, and then sort of making all of the pieces work out, managing operating controlling – all of that.
So I guess, it really was a personal project that benefited from an entrepreneurial perspective effectively, in an industry which is sort of the exact opposite of entrepreneurship.
Why Start Canonical
Michael Schwartz: We could probably spend the next half an hour just asking you questions about space, but this is a podcast about business.
Mark Shuttleworth: I’m pretty sure, I’m pretty sure many of us will get there.
We are at the dawn of much more transparent access to space. Pretty certain that the experiences that I had in some senses, hundreds of thousands people have similar experiences, or the opportunity to participate in some way with our next big steps as a species.
Michael Schwartz: That’d be amazing, I hope you’re right. But switching tracks to business and Canonical – why did you start Canonical?
Mark Shuttleworth: Before I went to space, I built a business in the field of security and cryptography and online commerce.
I had a great benefit of being able to pull together open source components to support and underpin that operation. And it struck me that this is a great way to accelerate innovation that the generosity of others was enabling me to go faster as an innovator and as an entrepreneur.
So I was in the fortunate position I could sit back and think about what kind of impact I wanted to have in the world. And it struck me that that would be a great way to return the favor, to simplify and reduce the cost of integrating open source would allow lots of other people, who were willing to take risks and had ideas, to move the ball forward faster than it would if it was just in the hands of a few large organizations, as technology.
The pendulum always swings, and back in the ‘90s, technology was very much in the hands of a few large organizations. I wanted to be part of breaking that open and enabling open source to be part of breaking that open.
There’s lots of different ways to do that, you can go chase a particular idea as open source, or you can look at the open source experience from end-to-end, and think about how to make that better for the people who are innovating and the people who are consuming and building on it, to structure the relationship between them so that it’s healthy and easier.
Challenges Of a Second StartUp
Michael Schwartz: Canonical is your second business, and one of the challenges around starting your second business is figuring out which lessons from the first business you don’t apply to the second business?
Mark Shuttleworth: It’s so extremely different that I really didn’t think that just because I’d been fortunate in one case that I could count on the same good fortune in other cases, or that certain instincts, which worked in the one case would necessarily apply in the other case.
When you do something completely different, foresight or folly to think that it’s something intrinsic, and that you have to study the problem.
And the sort of open source platform challenge is just completely different to many of the other sorts of opportunities in business, or even in open source.
So I still spend a lot of time thinking about the deep zen of what’s going on, which often isn’t the stuff that’s stressing people out, or the stuff that’s in the headlines – those sort of contextual reactions to something that someone did.
Most people tend to interpret what they see through the lens of the past.
I try to think about what it might be like if we weren’t concerned with the past. And so that’s the approach that I brought to the platform to Ubuntu and Canonical.
Who Is CEO of Canonical
Michael Schwartz: So you’re Executive Chairman of Canonical, not CEO – what does that mean exactly?
Mark Shuttleworth: What it means is that I’m really crap at updating my title on LinkedIn.
I am CEO of Canonical, and I’ve been for a while. I spent some time as Executive Chairman, and I just haven’t updated the bio.
Michael Schwartz: I did see your press release about some news about how your — I think the Wikipedia still says that you’re not.
Mark Shuttleworth: Well, equally, I was not interested in updating my own Wikipedia.
Michael Schwartz: If Wikipedia said it, then it must be right.
Mark Shuttleworth: It must be, yeah.
At one stage, I thought that the business needed a different focus from the CEO.
I was lucky enough to have Jane Silber in the business, and she took on that responsibility for a good stretch, 7 years, which allowed me to focus more on things that where interesting to me and kind of foundational for what we are doing now.
Today I’m sort of more in position of putting all those threads together as CEO. I guess I’ve enjoyed that return.
Thoughts On Red Hat/IBM
Michael Schwartz: Everyone in the open source community is trying to make sense of the IBM acquisition of Red Hat. Canonical has had a great relationship with IBM.
Were you surprised by the acquisition announcement, and what do you think it means for the community?
Mark Shuttleworth: I thought it was pretty clear for a long time that Red Hat wanted to find a buyer. So were the signals of that sort of preferred outcome.
I wasn’t surprised that in the end there was a transaction.
I was very surprised that one division in IBM was able to engineer such a large amount of debt for the whole business to take Red Hat on.
In a sense, it’s a great deal for Red Hat shoulders, investors, owners. It’s a great deal for the bankers, if it works out.
And it remains to be seen if it’s a great deal for IBM, but I buy the thesis that in a cloud world the ability to work well, on the public cloud and on your private infrastructure, is important.
And Raleigh is an important part of most enterprises private infrastructure, so the thesis of combining IBM’s public infrastructure with the Raleigh approach to private infrastructure, I think is a reasonable thesis. We’ll have to see what the execution around that looks like.
And the end of the day, because of the economics of the deal, there is an enormous amount of money that has to be brought in by IBM, through the deal, to justify the purchase price. And I’m pretty sure customers are going to end up being faced with that price.
That creates an opportunity for us. I’m thinking again right from the beginning with Ubuntu with Canonical was that I wanted to be sure that I drove the friction and the cost of building an open source, consuming open source down, even in the late ‘90s, early 2000, I felt that it was really important for the true benefits of open source to come to the widest possible audience.
There were people in the ecosystem, working on driving that cost down, rather than essentially working on their short-term monopolies, or other sort of positions of power that might bubble up in open source in order to behave like, you know, the old school power players of the tech ‘90s.
So we are very committed to driving down the cost of infrastructure that’s open source, driving down the cost of operating that infrastructure.
That I think puts us in stock contrast with where Red Hat was, and increasingly where I think IBM would have to take Red Hat because they’re going to have to earn the money back to pay for the premium that they’ve put on top of Red Hat already high evaluation.
I think that bodes well, we’ve already seen some indication of that.
Michael Schwartz: An operating system is a core infrastructure, everyone could be your customer. How do you segment the market from a commercial perspective?
Mark Shuttleworth: Internally, within the organization, we think about places where people are working in aggregate, supplied type infrastructure, where you are really blurring the lines between a single host, or single piece of infrastructure, and the whole.
And places are at the edge, where essentially everything is a single point of failure.
The operating regimes of those are quite different, the kinds of things that people are trying to do in those places is a quite different echo of each other, but they are quite different, and economics of those places are quite different.
If there is a primary segmentation, it’s along those lines.
The economics of cloud need to be shaped in a way that makes sense for cloud, the economics of appliances and devices need to be shaped in a way that makes sense for appliances and devices. If you zoom out, you can see a lot of common themes.
In both of those places, we’re thinking about how to help people put the right software in the right place, with the right version, at the right time, but the mechanisms and the economics are completely different, and reality has to line up with them.
Who Does Canonical Sell To
Michael Schwartz: So when your market is everybody, who do you sell to? Like, how do you actually figure out where is the next fuel is going to come from?
Mark Shuttleworth: Well, open source serves well to build a base of people who understand what they’re going to get when they work with you.
In our case, that’s sometimes a little less obvious because people’s relationship with the operating system is a little indirect.
They focused on an application, they focused on a project, they focused on the workload. It really only comes clear when they had been working with infrastructure or operating systems for a very, very long time, because then with a benefit of scale and time, you find yourself dealing with institutional type problems, with all the different versions of Ubuntu out there: How do I understand whether or not they’re compliant, whether or not they are secure, how do I manage them at scale, or how do I keep them compliant.
Those are not the sorts of questions that people are asking on day one.
There is sort of questions that individual teams will ask, that sort of question gets only asked once you’ve been consumed at some scale, across an entire organization.
But Ubuntu is very much in that position today, and so we’re usually able to find in almost any large organization that there is a substantial amount of usage of Ubuntu, and then show the organization how their relationship with that platform gets better in working with Canonical.
Breakdown of Revenues
Michael Schwartz: And that leads into my next question, which is DMB was showing around 130 million in revenue for, I think it was a year 2017. I’m sure you’re doing more now.
Can you shed some light on the breakdown of revenue? Is it mostly licensed, is it subscription? And does Canonical have a whole range of services and products, like is there an 80/20 rule, where 80% of the revenue is coming from 20% of the products?
Mark Shuttleworth: We do a mix of things, and that’s deliberate, you know.
We’re quite willing to do non-recurring engagements because, in many cases, we can help people with, for example, their startups or entrepreneurs, making an IoT device, or businesses building clouds, and so on.
We can accelerate their faster productivity because we have a whole pile of knowledge that we can call on, that they don’t have.
It would be much more expensive and take a lot longer, and be a lot less predictable if every one of those businesses needed to kind of do that pitch-scraping work for themselves.
So we’re quite happy to dig in and do work that people would think of as kind of consulting type engagements.
I know that that’s not considered sexy in Silicon Valley, but it’s an enormous benefit to customers, who otherwise effectively have to figure out how to staff something that they don’t understand.
The way we frame that is that our job is to get a business into a position where it’s very clear how they continue to operate efficiently in many cases that means doing a bunch of sort of heavy lift upfront with that business, which is not a subscription, not a service, not licensing, you know, none of the typical things that Silicon Valley likes.
However, if I come back to the original point, our core goal is to drive down the cost of consuming open source.
In any way we can do that is if we share that cost across many, many players. So subscription and licensing type products really achieve that. In the end we, make a much more cost-effective platform by sharing the cost of all the things that people end up caring about.
They may not really understand that when they start, but they end up caring a lot about those big-picture things over time.
And by licensing the product, licensing and running services that are recurring revenue services, we are really essentially reducing the cost to everybody of those critical functions.
Michael Schwartz: What would you say is the core value proposition of Ubuntu, or of Canonical’s commercial offering?
Mark Shuttleworth: Managing open source, engaging with open source at scale.
If you look at the generations of open source, in the first generation you had open source components. You had a great compiler that a small community was building on that was interesting. You had tools, a fork there, a spoon there, a knife there – you didn’t really have a whole.
So companies like Cygnus, that were closely involved in those individual tools, those were a sort of poster children, or the figureheads for open source.
Then with the emergence of Linux, it’s sort of moved up a layer, and the idea of ours was a sort of a base-operating system, people thought of a company like Red Hat is providing an alternative to something like Windows.
Today I think we’re in a very different world.
Today, if I look at GitHub, you can’t really explain GitHub, and what’s available to a business on GitHub, through the lens of anything that you’ve ever seen, from the Oracle’s and IBM’s of the world – you just can’t. There’s no analog.
There is an analog for Raleigh, it’s Windows or Solaris. But there’s no analog for the real benefits of embracing open source as sort of an open source first type policy.
And if I look at our customers, they tend to be companies that have moved fastest to say, “I want the real open source. I want the real benefits of open source in my business. I want those everywhere in my business.”
The first waves, they needed to be closely associated with a business, people wanted to look at open source, and make it feel like it came into a shrink-wrap box from a company that they could relate to in the way they’re related to Microsoft, to Sun, or to Oracle.
They wanted obviously a stronger sense of control in a relationship, and they wanted better economics, but fundamentally they still wanted that idea of a product from a company.
You don’t get that if you say, “I’m opening my business up to GitHub.” You have to be willing to figure out how to be productive, and willing to say, “I’m opening my business up to GitHub” – that’s the kind of relationship we end up having with organizations.
Working with us, they are able to say, yes, we’re not consuming Linux at a bigger scale more cost-effectively than we were when we were working with Red Hat.
But more importantly, we are now actually accelerating our entire development applications operation because we’re opening ourselves up to GitHub.
And the way Canonical works with us that is attainable, that we understand how we can make that work.
That’s why I’m excited to do it.
It means that people who do put time and effort into things on GitHub can find a way, either to get more uses of that, or to get a better return on that, depending on their particular interest.
Sales and Marketing
Michael Schwartz: Open source companies have a strange relationship with sales and marketing. Customers normally start using the software, and then they contact the vendor as you mentioned when they get to a certain scale, but can you talk about Canonical’s approach to sales and marketing and how it evolved over the years?
Mark Shuttleworth: The key thing for me is view enterprises customers, not as single things – because they are not.
An organization is a complex thing made up of lots of different functions and opinions and teams, and so on. To move stuff forward, there needs to be some sort of consensus, especially at a platform type top-level.
There needs to be some sort of consensus across that diversity that you are moving in the right direction. So, to my mind, it’s important to be having simultaneously multiple different relationships and conversations with people in an organization that is a prospect or a customer.
There are some of those relationships that are best done, completely transparently as engineer to engineer, open source code first contribution matters type engagements.
And we are quite unusual in encouraging our core engineers to speak with customers, and encouraging our customers to speak with core engineers, because it strengthens that kind of communication.
But it’s also important to be able to sit down with other people in that organization and have conversations that make sense to them about things that they care about. I think the challenge comes if you cross those wires, if you think that you’re going to run a marketing campaign to target developers, then you may be running the risk of using the wrong language, prioritizing the wrong things, emphasizing the wrong stuff.
To my mind, developers love Canonical and Ubuntu because we’re pretty focused on finding ways to help developers be more productive, go faster, experience less frustration and friction when they’re dealing with that vast, open-ended fire hose of open source.
There are a different set of concerns that we have to deal with when we engage with the rest of the business, and so to the extent that we invest in sales and marketing, we certainly do, it’s to make that more rounded communication possible.
I think it is important for every open source entrepreneur to understand that they need to be able to speak multiple languages. It’s the same message, but it’s essentially framed in different languages, to different parts of an enterprise.
Who To Partner With?
Michael Schwartz: Canonical has a deep technology partner network. It seems like everyone wants to partner with the makers of Ubuntu. How do you prioritize in which partnerships to invest?
Mark Shuttleworth: I think this is actually one of the areas where I made a lot of mistakes early on, because as you say, there is an enormous number of companies that intersect with Ubuntu in one way or the other.
And they do often want to engage and talk about a partnership of one form or another.
And I found that we were wasting a lot of resources in trying to conduct too many of those conversations at the same time, when, in fact, the best thing we could do for many of those businesses was to enable them to go faster with Ubuntu, and they didn’t need to be talking to us to do that.
So the easiest way to kind of resolve that is to set a threshold of value, mutual value, on a potential relationship.
We’ve done that essentially. If there is no clear path to a certain threshold of revenue to Canonical from a partnership, then there isn’t the basis for investing in the conversation.
There’s almost certainly appetite for that conversation because they’re using Ubuntu, but when you sort of really dig into it, if neither side can see a clear path to a certain threshold of business they’re going to do together, then you better off, leaving your engineers correspond through the bug tracker.
So today I think we have a much clearer view on the relationships that we are interested in. Because we’re a platform and we are used in so many different places and so many ways, I can’t say that there is a particular game plan or strategy to that, it’s simply the idea that very early in the conversation, we’ll say, “Well, what’s a path to doing a certain amount of business together?”
And if there is no clear answer to that, then the way forward is pretty clear – it’s open source, you know how to use it, you’re here because that’s true, but if neither of us can see a clear way to grow faster together, than “let’s leave it as it is.”
What Defines The Best Partnerships?
Michael Schwartz: What have been some of the most successful partnerships so far?
Mark Shuttleworth: The best partnerships come where people need a platform because they’re doing something other than a platform.
So, an example of that would be somebody who’s shipping appliances, they are selling something that does some very specific, people are looking for that function.
They need an operating system, and we are the preferred operating system. If their engineers have a say, and increasingly engineers do have a say, then businessmen know that to succeed, they need to go faster and faster, and they need their engineers to be happy and productive.
So since we focused a lot on keeping the engineers happy and productive, we’re typically the preferred platform for people in that sort of space.
And again, we’re pretty focused on driving down the cost of the platform, making it cost-effective for people to build services on top of Ubuntu, ship them, be able to answer all the tech platform questions that people have: Is it certified on this hardware, where can I get support, how long till I get support, is it certified, for these purposes is it certified in these countries, who’s going to handle this kind of call, who’s going to handle that kind of call, what do we do in the circumstances.
So more complexities than most businesses want to deal with internally when it isn’t their business effectively.
Our best partnerships come where people are very clear in their minds that they need a platform. Also clear in their minds that that’s not their primary business.
A secondary kind of layer would be places where people understand that Ubuntu is effectively the reference way to do something.
In a field of AI, for example, now it’s very clear most people doing that are doing it on Ubuntu, and they all go faster as a result. There is just much less friction, and we accelerate that, we facilitate that, we make specific types of investments that essentially you get rid of friction between the various groups that are competing and cooperating in AI.
The same is true in robotics, the same is true in all kinds of fields that are important to people. None of those in fact are competing around the platform that they’re using. So they don’t really mind if they end up sharing a platform.
If anything, it is reassuring to their customers, they do not want to be wired in that regard. So I guess the heart of that is, there’s a clear distinction between what people are selling and what we’re selling. That makes for a much more natural partnership.
When folks on the other side of the table are conflicted about what they want to sell, then usually the conversation gets complicated.
Our part in that I think also is just unconflicted. The temptation is to sort of get into everybody else’s business, and we don’t. I like partnering with smaller companies who are good at something, in finding ways that the relationship between us effectively is healthy for them.
I think it’s really important when you are in a position to be an aggregator that you don’t forget what it took to create the things that you are aggregating.
So I think we’re unusually respectful of what it takes to be an innovator or an entrepreneur in open source, and that makes it certainly easier to partner.
View On Licenses To Prevent Saasquatters
Michael Schwartz: Just switching gears a little bit to more ecosystem stuff.
There’s a lot of discussion in the community about how to define new open source licenses that prevent SaaSquatting, or a large SaaS company uses open source technology, and either doesn’t contribute or even undermines the company that’s developing that software.
When I interviewed Jay Kreps from Confluent, he mentioned that open source licenses were created at a time before large SaaS companies were using open source to sort of move into this infrastructure layer. Do you think the community needs to develop new open source licenses to mitigate this type of exploitation?
Mark Shuttleworth: Well, you know, when it comes to the rules and regulations and terms of engagement, and so on, I think there’s one kind of perpetual rule, which is the old “treat others the way you’d like to be treated”, especially if the roles were reversed. I think that’s a universal story, and that’s been the case for a long time.
Beyond that, I’m not that much into sort of commandments written in stone, they don’t tend to last, the world changes, the dynamics change.
And exploring, innovating, testing, finding new ways to organize – those are all normal.
We have social norms and conventions, ways to run society, ways to run businesses, regulatory, and frameworks, and so on. Today they reflect our best understanding of what works. In that light, people exploring different approaches for licensing open source is normal.
Remember, we focused on the whole spectrum of what’s on GitHub. Our engagement with a bank, for example, is about helping them consume more of that diversity. So no one license is going to end up being the answer to all of the questions.
Again, it’s not like any of our users can be in a position where they say, “Look, we’re only going to deal with stuff on the GPLv2 or Apache” – this just doesn’t work that way.
The question really is, how can we get the benefit of all of the open source out there, so we have to work well with all the people who are innovating, both in code but also in licenses.
So it doesn’t work for me to be super ideological about the one license that’s best for everybody.
As I look at the current angst, written debate around open source licensing, I think there’s three groups. There’s the people producing open source, typically smaller, typically innovative, typically focused on creating something new. There are aggregators, we call them the SaaSquatters, and then there are also the buyers, they are also the enterprises.
Then, stepping back, I’d say, we are only at the beginning of that debate, so as a consequence, what you’re seeing is 1.0 type thinking from all of those players.
This shallow thinking and the arguments that I’ve seen from all sides, the cloud company’s arguments are little bit like Mary Antoinette, you know, “Oh, let them eat cake.”
This should be fine, they’ve set the business model problems, you know. That belies the fact that they really do depend on innovators to innovate, and it isn’t them. They do a lot of innovation, but it’s not this kind of innovation.
Conversely, there’s also folks, super upset at the idea that other people making money off their stuff are missing some obvious points that they benefit from consumption, then from engagement, that lose that if they weren’t willing to make a trade of some form.
And then you have the buyers, the people who ultimately pay the bills. Who also I think they’re a little behind the curve in terms of whether value is really coming from, and how to engage with both those aggregated type players and the underlying innovators.
I’m not particularly fast about where we are at right now. I think it’s normal for pendulums to swing, the pendulum is swinging in one direction now – that’s exercising people’s minds, it’s driving debate. I’m pretty sure it’ll all work itself out.
Challenges For Open Source Startups
Michael Schwartz: Besides licensing, what are the biggest challenges facing companies that want to make an open source software distribution core to their business?
Mark Shuttleworth: I think it’s clear that open source on its own isn’t enough.
And I think that’s because the sorts of things that people are trying to achieve with open source, or the sorts of problems, where people want to see open source play a role, have mushroomed into the full spectrum of problems and opportunities that are out there.
There was a time when interesting software could be written by one person or two people – that is still true.
I mean, it’s still kind of amazing how somebody will think of something and produce it – I love that, that sort of learn, think or invent, I love that. But that approach is completely not relevant when you’re looking at producing something like Kubernetes.
It’s completely not relevant. There is no informal couple of people or one person that can do that.
And I think a lot of the stress in the conversation comes from people who have had one experience of open source, and therefore assumed that they understand how it works or how it should work, and then they’re applying that to circumstances, where those ideas or approaches just flat-out would not work.
Compound that with the fact of course people have interests.
They’re both, either deliberately, or somewhat naively blind to the things they might think that are really convenient truth. Convenient because of their interest.
There isn’t going to be one approach that essentially enables open source to be relevant across the full spectrum of technology, because the full spectrum of technology is a very broad spectrum.
And so people yelling at each other and saying, “You don’t understand.” is probably mostly a symptom of the fact that people are coming from lots of different backgrounds, and making naive assumptions about what it’s like in the other person’s shoes.
How To Balance Corporate And Open Source Interests
Michael Schwartz: The raison d’être of a for-profit company is to make money, and to make a return for investors, but pure-play open source software vendors also have a contract with the community. Is there a right way to balance these objectives?
Mark Shuttleworth: I think it’s important for people to understand what makes someone else tick.
As soon as you start telling other people how they should behave, and specifically telling other people that they should behave the way that suits you, or the way that you behave, you’re probably missing the opportunity to get the benefit of having diverse perspectives.
And I think it’s really important for people participating in a community to have some empathy for the people for whom the project is their lifeblood. That’s super important.
And often in the Ubuntu community, it’s being valuable to remind people of the fact that we are a community because we have different interests and different needs, and figuring out how to make those things work is important, tend to push back quite hard on the idea that the company must serve the community.
I think it’s important for both groups to understand mutual interests. I love that we make opportunity in Ubuntu for people who have completely different interests to Canonical’s.
It’s an enormous amount of stuff that we do that they can free ride on effectively, which lets them explore interesting things that are important to them for whatever reason. It could be commercial, it could be personal, it could be scientific.
And I’m happy to make that space. I push back pretty hard on anybody who says they shouldn’t be spaced for Canonical.
And I generally try to remind different groups inside the Ubuntu community of the fact that they can’t expect everybody to act exactly the same way. Most often I see that sort of argument from people who have entirely external ways to support themselves.
So very large companies that control access to enterprise accounts can make money using open source in those accounts effectively, but they certainly don’t want anybody else coming into those accounts because their margins come from account control effectively.
So a lot of the foundations, where we see large companies essentially standing up foundations is really predicated on the fact that while they want to benefit from true community participation, and that they want to benefit from innovators, they don’t want to see either of those groups in their accounts.
And they’d like to sort of create a fig leaf that is strictly non-commercial, that those accounts can’t go and ask for certain things from – all of that’s normal, where in an evolving marketplace, I find just as a leader, it helps to remind people of the fact that the diversity of interests is what makes an interesting community.
Canonical 20 Years From Now?
Michael Schwartz: Where do you see Canonical in 20 years?
Mark Shuttleworth: 20 years? That’s super interesting.
If I look back 15, it’s been 15 years, in a sense, just an extraordinary amount has changed.
I wouldn’t have predicted 15 years ago that we’d be a key platform on the Mainframe, and on the Raspberry Pi. I wouldn’t have predicted the Raspberry Pi. And I think that’s part of what I love about open source, it’s that people end up doing things with it, that the creators of the open source didn’t imagine.
It is really hard to do that with proprietary software, because sooner or later you’ll run into something that it’s just a small little impediment but you can’t do anything about it.
But something’s really haven’t changed – it is about enabling people to go faster with open source, to drive down the cost of open source, drive down the friction of open source.
I don’t see any other way of organizing software that seems poised to beat open source.
I don’t see anything on the horizon that looks like a discontinuity in that flow, pretty certain that Canonical offers a better way to engage with the entirety of open source for business.
If you are a bank, and you want to engage with open source, with a next generation, with a next wave, and we’re already well-up on the adoption curve. Early adopters are very comfortable with Ubuntu and Canonical, and it’s now on the sort of a faster rising part of the curve.
Maybe there’ll be some other organization that figures out a better way to do that, and that would be exciting, that would be interesting.
But at the moment I think we are well-positioned to be the company that enables people to consume, and integrate, and operate open source across the full spectrum, across all the clouds, and architectures, and devices, and things like that, better and more cost-effectively.
It’s hard for me to predict what will happen at the application lab because I’m not an inventor of applications, I’m not competing with people who make databases, or AI, computer vision recognition systems, or anything like that.
There’s an enormous amount of innovation that happens around us, which is kind of a privilege to watch that I don’t have to worry about guessing too much, you know, who’s going to invent what, because as long as they need a platform, and as long as they want that platform on sort of a reasonable and efficient commercial terms, with a long-term commitment, there’s a role for us to play.
Advice For New Open Source Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: Last question, any advice for new entrepreneurs who are launching a business around open source software?
Mark Shuttleworth: There’s a real sort of double challenge in starting a tech operation that is open source.
Starting a tech operation’s always hard because you want to do something new, and that’s surprisingly difficult.
Like, you genuinely have to do something different if you want to be successful, from a technology point of view, and most of the people who would have that kind of open source view, there’s a technology angle to it, that’s something new that they want to do. And it’s hard enough getting that right.
With open source, you need to think about the fact that you’re enabling your own competition, as the blunt truth of it. You’re enabling people to compete with you, but the benefit of all the things that you’ve done, and that can be both financially and emotionally very daunting.
But at the end of the day, I don’t see any other model for software, which is spreading as fast across the world of the kind of categories of software out there today.
If you’re not going to be open source, you’re almost certainly going to be niche.
That may be satisfying for you, but I doubt it.
For most people, I think they want to find a category, and it really is going to be open source that will define a category. I’m not too worried about the non open source work, or the sort of wrapped around open source work that we see in large aggregators. Because, in a sense, by definition, they’re niche, they can only ever engage with people in their pond, maybe a big pond, but the trick is where the boundaries are.
For people who essentially want to have the whole world as an audience or a market, I think open source is an important component. It’s very, very hard, but I do think it’s the only way.
Michael Schwartz: Mark Shuttleworth, cosmonaut, CEO, Founder, Capetonian – thank you so much for joining us today.
Mark Shuttleworth: It’s been a pleasure.
Michael Schwartz: Special thanks to Claire from Canonical for helping us get us Mark’s calendar.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free by Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere.
Production assistance and transcription by Natalie Lowe. Operational Support from William Lowe.
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Next week we’re heading back to Berlin, Germany, to talk in person with Jakob Freund, Founder and CEO of Camunda.
Until then, thanks for listening.