Mark Shuttleworth & the Software Mercenaries of Ubuntu

The Ubuntu founder gets the NYTimes treatment.

This week’s Sunday New York Times featured an article on Canonical CEO and founder of Ubuntu, Mark Shuttleworth titled, “A Software Populist Who Doesn’t Do Windows.” It starts off… well — let’s be frank — a little rough.

They’re either hapless pests or the very people capable of overthrowing Windows. Take your pick.

In December, hundreds of these controversial software developers gathered for one week at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They came from all over the world, sporting many of the usual signs of software mercenaries: jeans, ponytails, unruly facial hair and bloodshot eyes.

I get the feeling the mainstream press has been reusing some version of a single intro for all Linux articles since 1999. Who are these strange people? What is this… Linux? How can it be free? These people must be CRAZY!

The second paragraph isn’t without its entertainment value, however. The description of, ahem, software mercenaries calls to mind the painting by John Singleton Copley entitled “Watson And The Shark.” Looking at the painting today it is fairly clear Copely had never seen a shark in life and was going off second-hand accounts. One wonders just how much unruly facial hair the author witnessed firsthand in the drafting of this article.

There’s not much new here as it’s largely a retread of Shuttleworth’s bio, however, on page three something interesting pops up when comparing Canonical to Microsoft

All told, Canonical’s annual revenue is creeping toward $30 million, Mr. Shuttleworth said.

That figure won’t worry Microsoft.

But Mr. Shuttleworth contends that $30 million a year is self-sustaining revenue, just what he needs to finance regular Ubuntu updates. And a free operating system that pays for itself, he says, could change how people view and use the software they touch everyday.

“Are we creating world peace or fundamentally changing the world? No,” he said. “But we could shift what people expect and the amount of innovation per dollar they expect.”

Microsoft had an estimated 10,000 people working on Vista, its newest desktop operating system, for five years. The result of this multibillion-dollar investment has been a product late to market and widely panned.

10,000 developers? That is a staggering number of human beings to throw at a piece of software. You have to wonder just how sustainable that development model is in the longterm.

Read the full article here.

Bryan Richard is the VP of Editorial and Infrastructure for linuxdlsazine. Want to get in touch? Send him an email.

Comments on "Mark Shuttleworth & the Software Mercenaries of Ubuntu"


10,000 developers over 10 years is not a staggering number. I’m betting that’s about how many person-hours have been contributed to Linux and the application structure sitting atop it.

I have great respect for my Windows-developer peers, and do not think that I can accomplish in one hour what takes them two.

“Free” from Canonical doesn’t mean “free” as in no sweat. When you run Linux, it becomes obvious that a lot of “sweat” went into it.


There is a natural selection process that drives Linux which is not present in Windows. This ensures that tens of thousands of man-hours do not get wasted on useless eye-candy and application features that no-one uses. Also small teams code more efficiently than large groups as they have to spend less time mediating what is good and bad. I worked six months in a project team at IBM where the development methodology limited a team of 10 programmers to producing less than 10 useful lines of code per person per day.


You know you have a slow development process when Darwinian evolution looks speedy my comparison. ;-)


I think I saw the number 3700 active Linux developers tossed out sometime around 2005 or so, but my memory is prone to segfault.

Of course, “active Linux developer” doesn’t mean full-time. Employing 10,000 people over 5 years is something like 100,000,000 man-hours. For a single product. That just seems remarkable to me.

Maybe that’s just what it takes to build something the size of Windows, I’m not sure. For me, grasping the size of the Windows development task is like trying to visualize the size of the solar system; it’s just a little too big for me fully comprehend.


Now, if we could just get Mark to ‘shame’ Broadcom and other wireless mini-card manufacturers who seek to frustrate the straightforward support of the wireless function on most PCs…. Broadcom ( allow M$ to distribute Broadcom’s IP/code, in case there is a wireless card found during the Windows install, yet Broadcom refuse to allow that same right to Linux.
If the standard Ubuntu install also handled wireless, then I think the war would be won. As it stands, a small number of IP holders are slowing down the widespread deployment of easy Linux distros like Ubuntu, at precisely the time when (given Vista-hate etc and Win7 being well-off) Linux should be doing EVEN BETTER.
Let’s knock down the last remaining walls, and get WiFi happening “out of the box”.
Graeme Harrison (prof at-symbol


It is not posible to compare a greedy person with a humanitarian one. Neither is posible to compare an OS made for people to one made to get rich.


The NYT article contains interesting information on the man. I had heard a lot about him but learned much that was new to me. But the information about the current state of Ubuntu is more descriptive of its condition about 3 years ago. When XP, on our home PC, fatally crashed for the final time in 2007, my kids (9, 12 & 16) were re-oriented and doing all their school-work and personal communications in Ubuntu in a few hours. That’s hardly a difficult system to aquire.

There seems to be no personal investigation regarding running Win apps. The mention of tax software begins to look like one has an agenda (especially in January). To be thorough and balanced he should point out that all serious tax software vendors have online interfaces that run just fine in a web browser on Ubuntu. Also, has he heard of Wine, Cedega, CrossOver or Bordeaux?

I must say though that, to his credit, Vance does point out that Ubuntu updates are frequent and efficacious. He mentions the “slick graphical interface, familiar menus and all the common desktop software”; does he know he’s shooting down his own points about difficult usage??!! The latter is a slap in the face as he points out that the average user is less computer savvy than the children of Macedonia (a very humorous contradiction though). The further insinuation that Spain and France are ahead of the US in their ability to adopt another operating system is an unintentional but obvious insult.

One wonders if he is aware of the Linux inroads made in Munich’s city government and the German government’s agency for labor; the Portuguese Ministry of Justice; the Swedish Armed Forces; the Swiss and Japanese Governments; Vienna, Austria; the Ministry of Health, New Zealand; the Federal Government of Brazil; the South African Revenue Service; Mexico City; the Government of Venezuela; the city of Largo, Florida; the US Library of Congress; the United States Postal Service; the US Navy; NASA; and the NSA (to name a very few). Isn’t it odd that a system so “rough around the edges” is having such world-wide success?

Vance’s most humorous line is: “updates to Linux can send ripples of problems through the system, causing something as basic as a computer’s display or sound system to malfunction.” The guffaws around my office were deafening. A good number of our applications here at the university simply will not run in Microsoft’s latest offering.

No — getting used to Ubuntu now is just like getting used to Windows was. There is a learning curve but it’s a magnitude shorter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>