Interview with Linux-Magazine Italia

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Vincenzo Ciaglia from Linux-Magazine Italia sent me a few questions related to the release of 8.04 LTS. Since he was going to translate the conversation into Italian this week, he was happy for me to blog the English version here.

1) Hi Mark, thank you for your availability. Some simple questions to introduce you to our readers to start. What’s your role at Ubuntu/Canonical and what do you do in your spare time? What are your hobbies?
My favourite sport is snowboarding, and I enjoy travel to tropical spots. But ultimately I’m happiest when I’m being a geek, reading, playing games or relaxing with friends.

2) You’re the founder of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. Why do you decided to invest a lot of dollars (10$ million) to start up the company? In which fields does it work to make its business? How do you make the company sustainable?
The vision of Ubuntu and Canonical is a symbiotic one. We believe that Linux has grown to the point where it is possible to build the platform at a low enough cost to make it sustainable purely though services around it, rather than through licensing the platform. In other words, we think that support, training, online services, and professional engineering for people who want to adapt Ubuntu commercially will earn enough money to pay for Ubuntu itself.

That means that we can fundamentally change the business model of the OS industry. Of course, it till take time to prove that we can achieve this, but we have a superb team and now that Ubuntu is well established we see increasing demand for services from Canonical, which is positive.

3) Ok, let’s talk about the latest Ubuntu 8.04. In an interview you said that “Hardy Heron is your most significant release ever”. Well, can you talk about the main improvements of this release?
First, this is an LTS (“Long Term Support”) release that was delivered on a very precise schedule. Six months ago we committed to shipping 8.04 LTS on April 24th, and we did exactly that. As far as I know, nobody has ever shipped an “enterprise class” OS release on a schedule that precise. And not only did we do that, but we have now committed to ship the next LTS in April 2010, it will be 10.04 LTS, and we’ll set the exact date six months in advance like we did with this one. It is thanks to Debian and the free software community that it is possible for us to do this. So 8.04 LTS has proven our ability to deliver not just 18-month-supported releases on time, but also LTS releases on time. We very much hope that other distributions will follow our lead on the LTS cycle with their enterprise releases, because that will make it easier for us all to collaborate, and make all the major Linux distributions better.

Second, there are very significant new developments for Ubuntu itself. On the server, we worked with HP on their Proliant range, and with Dell on their PowerEdge range, to ensure that 8.04 LTS will be compatible with their popular x86 servers. We’re not yet certified, but we are sure that it will “Just Work”. Sun Microsystems has gone further, and has actually certified 8.04 LTS on a range of their x86 servers. This is a major step forward for Ubuntu on the server. We see an amazing amount of usage now for Ubuntu on the server – it’s the most popular server platform for several ISV’s. So it’s important that we work with server vendors, and server solution vendors. We’ve also put a lot of work into the use of KVM and VMWare virtualisation, because we see people building hundreds of virtual appliances on Ubuntu.

On the desktop, we have focused on making it easier to install Ubuntu, especially on a machine which already has Windows, where you can now install Ubuntu into a file on the Windows partition instead of having to resize your Windows partition to make a new partition for Ubuntu. That makes it much easier for people to test out Ubuntu, and hence to get a taste of free software. We have also worked on many of the common things that people want to do with their PC, such as work with photos and music, and started to improve the user experience there.

4) There are still some hardware issues (especially with some wireless devices) in Ubuntu. How do you think to solve these kind of problems and improve hardware support in the next releases?
We are increasingly able to work directly with the hardware manufacturers, to try and convince them to develop free software drivers for their hardware. Our relationships with different PC companies mean that we can lobby strongly for people to embrace Linux, properly.

We also work very hard to tie together all the ugly pieces of string that are needed to make the user experience of Linux on your hardware a pleasant one. Unfortunately, for example, there are multiple different wireless stacks, for example, with different capabilities. And Ubuntu spends a lot of time integrating and debugging them to try and create a harmonious, standardised experience for end-users.

5) What kind of improvements Ubuntu 8.04 bring to server and virtualization solutions?
Ubuntu Server Edition brings all the wonderful characteristics of Debian to the front – it’s modular, efficient, has a huge package selection, and is easy to install and manage. In addition, we’ve done a lot of work with server manufacturers to ensure compatibility with their popular hardware, and have started certifying with some of them.

Our virtualisation offering is based around KVM and VMWare. Out of the box, Ubuntu should give you the best possible experience with both of them. It is optimised and rigorously tested, and Ubuntu is certified on VMWare’s ESX Server platform. KVM, the free software virtualisation option we prefer, is built in to our standard server kernel, so you can get started with virtualisation immediately. There is also a Xen kernel for folks who prefer Xen.

We have done a lot of work around the integration of Ubuntu servers and Windows networks, particularly in the field of Active Directory and SMB file sharing servers. We worked with a company called Likewise to make sure that there is a smooth process to join an Active Directory network, and can even manage Linux machines through AD using Likewise’ professional tools. All the capabilities to do the basic stuff are free software and built in to Ubuntu.

6) A dirty question from our readers: Ubuntu is really a giant now, are you trying to kill the Debian project?
Absolutely not. I’m a Debian Developer myself, and very proud of what Debian has achieved, and also proud of everything that Ubuntu contributes to the broader Debian project. We consider Ubuntu to be a member of the Debian family, that’s just purely focused on the specific use cases and platforms that our customers want.

Much of what we do in Ubuntu contributes directly to Debian. We lead the packaging of many important pieces of the desktop, and server, and toolchain, and contribute that work directly to Debian. As a result, Debian is updated much faster these days than it used to be without Ubuntu. We have lead many key transitions and always try to collaborate with the relevant people upstream AND in Debian to ensure that the work flows smoothly into those projects. Most DD’s are very happy to collaborate, but some view Ubuntu as a threat, and refuse to collaborate, or make unreasonable demands on Ubuntu because they think “you have money” when in fact most of Ubuntu is volunteer driven.

My vision is that Debian and Ubuntu both grow stronger through good collaboration. I’m trying to have a keynote accepted at DebConf to help make that vision a reality, but so far have had no luck in getting approval. Hopefully, the leadership of Debian will start to come around tot he idea that Ubuntu’s success is very good for Debian.

7) You’re working with embedded devices and electronics company. In which way? What is you work in the tight partnership with Intel?
Linux is increasingly used by embedded solution providers, and many of them want to use Ubuntu. So we are working with Intel to make sure that Ubuntu fully supports their low-power hardware (cpu’s, chipsets, graphics and so on).

8) Ubuntu surely is the most used and appreciated GNU/Linux distribution in the world. But, do you think that Ubuntu Linux will reach – one day – the success of other operating systems like OS X and Windows? In which way do you think to accomplish a similar goal?
I do believe that free software will come to be widely recognised, trusted and used by everyday computer users, as opposed to being limited to specialists as it is today. Hopefully Ubuntu will play a part in that, but I don’t think one platform will dominate that free software era like Windows dominated the proprietary software era. Ubuntu is focused on specific needs, and there are other versions of Linux or BSD that meet others.

In order to break out from the pack, we need to deliver a desktop experience that is exciting, that is easy to use, and which people are confident will be compatible with their future needs and with those of their colleagues.

9) Everybody talk about GNU/Linux but seems that not so many peoples trust Linux for now (some statistics talk about 0.xx% of the Linux world usage). What is the problem? Nevertheless Ubuntu is really a great operating system. Do you think it’s just a matter of marketing or because the lack of game packages?
I think it takes time to change the habits of hundreds of millions of people! I also think we need to deliver an experience that is simply better than the alternatives. Projects like Firefox don’t define their goal as being “a good browser”, they say “we want to be the best browser on any platform, period”, and as a result they are very popular even on Windows. We need that winning attitude everywhere.

10) Canonical was the first GNU/Linux company to make a deal with a computer vendor, Dell. How is going your business now? The curious thing is that on IdeaStorm a lot of users asked for Linux Computers but after some months seems that the sales aren’t so good, or at least not as expected. Why? Maybe GNU/Linux is not ready for the consumer market yet?
I agree that the more people actually buy systems with Linux pre-installed, the faster things like hardware support will be addressed. Fortunately, we see millions of units being shipped with Linux already, just not at the high-end of the PC business. The low-end, especially in countries like Brazil and China, is very active. Slowly, Linux is becoming a volume player.

11) Are you working with other computer vendor to sell other Ubuntu-based desktops and laptops? We’re Italians and the Ubuntu-Dell computers never arrived in our country. Why Dell, and other vendor, is so shy to sell GNU/Linux computers world wide?
That’s a simple matter of demand and the cost to meet it. Any PC manufacturer will take a firm view of the economics of an opportunity, and it’s healthy that they do. Until folks in Italy are really willing to buy computers with Linux pre-installed, there will not be a real market for them. I’m sure there are local providers who build good computers who will pre-install Ubuntu for you. You need to help them become big enough that the Dell’s and HP’s and Lenovo’s of the world are confident there is an opportunity that is worthwhile for them.

12) What is your point of view about the the Novell-Microsoft controversial deal?
There are some good intentions, and there are some bad intentions, and unfortunately they are all mixed up in that deal. On the positive side, it’s good to see Microsoft acknowledge the need for both Linux and Windows, and the need for interoperability. On the negative side, the deal only works financially because Novell and Microsoft have the same business model – licensing software for a certain price per seat.

Microsoft is in an awkward position. They very much want to stop the free use of Linux, and they would like to use patents to do so, which is why they structured the deal as a notional “IP license”. But they also know that free software engineers could probably avoid any patents they raise, so they have been unwilling to state which patents they think justify such a deal.

13) In a interview ( you declared that “you’d love to work with Microsoft”. Do you want to make another deal following the Novell one or what?
I am very happy to work with Microsoft, or any other company, to improve the state of free software and the software industry as a whole. There are many things that we can collaborate on where we have shared interests – encouraging good telecommunications policy, for example.

But I will not agree to a deal like the Novell one, because I don’t think there is any IP issue in fact, and until Microsoft actually states what patents it is concerned about there is no need for us to take any action. Unfortunately for Novell, I think they have done a deal which gives them a short-term boost, at a very high long term cost. Time will tell.

14) And what do you think about the OOXML standard and the Microsoft Open Promise?
I don’t believe that ISO’s declaration of OOXML as a standard will actually deliver any benefit to users of Microsoft Office. They will still be using a big, bloated piece of software with no competition, that is not-quite-standards-compliant. That’s a pity. Microsoft’s customers had an opportunity to ignite real innovation in the office document space, by encouraging Microsoft to support and existing, open, well-defined document standard in ODF. But they didn’t – Microsoft managed to push enough partners and resellers into the standards process that the ISO decision did not really reflect anything other than Microsoft’s commercial interests.

15) We’re getting a GNU/Linux ultramobile-lowcost-laptop everyday. What do you think about Eee PC Linux revolution?
I think they are great!

16) Acer, HP, MSI, Asus and much more want to join the Linux-powered UMPC market. Are you making some deals to port Ubuntu on some of these laptop?
Lots of people are installing Ubuntu onto their UMPC’s, so I think it’s reasonable that some manufacturers may choose to pre-install it. It’s their decision! If you think that would be popular, then it would probably be worth encouraging them to do so.

17) A lot of analysts talks about a GNU/Linux conquer on mobile market in the next few years. From smartphone to UMPC: the future is Linux. Can you talk about Ubuntu Mobile, its concept, the present and the future?
Yes! Intel is driving a project called Moblin, which aims to produce a mobile software platform for handheld devices, and we’re basing Ubuntu Mobile on that. The first versions are out already, and the roadmap looks very exciting.

Traditionally, it was very expensive to produce software for consumer electronic devices, because they were all specialised hardware with specialised operating systems and application development environments. We are aiming to change that – to make it so that you can build a simple .deb on x86 which can be installed on any piece of consumer electronics that uses this platform. That should greatly increase the amount of innovation we see in the mobile space.

18) What do you think about your competitors? Fedora/Red Hat, openSUSE and Mandriva are doing good work as well as Ubuntu. What GNU/Linux distribution do you prefer if you couldn’t use Ubuntu?
Yes, all of the distributions make contributions to the art and industry of free software. I’m very glad that lots of companies continue to invest in Linux, it makes it a much healthier and more vibrant ecosystem than it would be if just one company dominated it. So I’m very happy with the competition. If Ubuntu didn’t exist, I would use Debian.

19) And what is your feeling about the latest Sun acquisition (MySQL)? Are you working with Sun to port the OpenJDK on Ubuntu?
MySQL is a great company and a very good fit for Sun. I hope they are happy together and that the company will continue to produce a superb free software database.

Yes, OpenJDK is part of Ubuntu 8.04 (though it is not yet at the core, and not yet the default Java environment). We hope to have 8.04 LTS fully TCK-certified in due course. And most of all we are grateful to the Sun folks for letting us package OpenJDK as a proper Ubuntu package, neatly integrated with the rest of the OS. We are aiming for a result which feels “all Java, all Ubuntu”, and I would encourage your users to try it out! Make sure “universe” is enabled on your Ubuntu machine, then type “sudo apt-get install openjdk-6-jdk”.

20) What are the next Canonical plans? Are there any interesting initiatives in progress?
Of course, but this is not the right place for a press release 🙂

21) Finally, do you think that GNU/Linux is “really” ready for the desktop users? In which way could be improved?
Yes, I believe it is ready for SOME desktop users. If you really want a desktop that is web-oriented, then Linux is an excellent choice, with either Gnome or KDE (I’m really impressed with the work going on as part of KDE4, by the way). We know that there are millions of people using Linux today. And we are focused on solving the problems that prevent more and more people from adopting it.

Free software is intrinsically a better way to build software, I believe. But we should not plan to be judged on our morals, we should expect to be judged on our software. We have to deliver something that LOOKS and FEELS better, then we can expect people to embrace it fully. And once people realise they can have something that is better AND sustainable AND comes with many freedoms, the world will be a fundamentally different place. That is our goal.

22) Our interview seems to be completed. Do you have something to add for our readers? Thank you for your time and keep up the excellent work!
Please participate! There are lots of ways to get involved with upstream projects or with Ubuntu. Help spread the word, or fix a bug, or translate something from the desktop into Italian!

The good folks at Dell have added DVD playback capability to the image that they preinstall for folks who buy Dell computers with Ubuntu.

Multimedia and DVD are often cited as the biggest things missing from the typical consumer’s expectations of a “fully working system”. Ideally, we could deliver a great multimedia experience in a free software stack but the US patent landscape makes that impossible, so for the moment this requires proprietary software.  My hope is that the content industry will realise that DRM and playback restrictions are harmful to their own interests, and that EMI’s decision to sell MP3’s leads to a broader movement away from restrictive technologies.

So, thanks and congrats to Dell for taking care of this for their customers, there’s one more reason to give someone close to you a virus-resistant, spyware-resistant Ubuntu-based Dell for 2008 🙂