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Mark Shuttleworth: A rags to space tale

Mark Shuttleworth: A rags to space tale

Mark Shuttleworth went from poor uni student to multi millionaire after the sale of Thawte

Mark Shuttleworth made news in 2002 when he fulfilled a lifelong ambition and became the first South African into space, paying US$20 million to be a civilian cosmonaut on an eight-day flight aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In 2004, he founded Ubuntu Linux to bring the operating system to people around the world. He is also the founder of HBD Venture Capital and the non-profit Shuttleworth Foundation.

You have pumped more than $10 million of your own money into the continuing development of Ubuntu Linux, and you have been on a personal campaign to bring a free, easy-to-use and reliable Linux to the masses around the world. Why?

In college, I was struggling to get my own personal computer hooked up to the university network. Then someone gave me a stack of Slackware Linux discs and found myself just enthralled by the breadth and depth of the tools that were available from Linux, even in those very early days. It's like going from living in the desert to walking into an all-you-can-eat buffet. I went on to turn that interest in the Internet into a small business called Thawte [in 1995], which sold digital certificates that I created, initially at least, with cryptographic software that was available under an open source license.

How did you think of getting into such a business back in 1995, just as the Internet was becoming a household word?

I was poor. I was desperate. I wanted to be on this bandwagon of this Internet thing and I wanted to find a business that wouldn't require large amounts of bandwidth or large amounts of capital.

The key was Linux. It was Linux that let me connect to the Net so I could start soaking up this knowledge. It was Linux that let me put servers down in a company with an employee count of one and to have servers in three countries and administer them all remotely over slow dial-up lines. You could only do that with Linux.

I sold that business in 1999, right at the top of the Internet bubble. That then gave me the opportunity to sit back and ask myself what are the things in life that I would like to be a part of. You know, life is short.

One thing was to explore space and be a part of that adventure. I went and I did that. And the other thought was to be a part of this experience of free software, which had been beneficial to me -- bringing that to a much wider audience. And that's the genesis of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Linux has come a long way in just three years. How far are you from the dream of Linux for the masses?

Well, we certainly have been part of the process of making Linux more widely accepted and interesting and useful. Part of that has been fortunate timing. The Linux community itself around 2004 decided it was an interesting problem. The Linux kernel guys were feeling like they had proven that they could make the kernel stable and reliable and robust and the next challenge was the desktop.

So we've benefitted by entering the scene right at the same time as everybody else was getting interested in that.

In the U.S., Ubuntu has been getting attention for its desktop operating system. What's the strategy for Ubuntu in the enterprise marketplace with its server OS version?

Of course it will take time to build up a complete portfolio of certifications, but many organizations have taken the first step, which is deploying Ubuntu on a server somewhere. Even if that's just an internal affair, such as a high-performance computing testbed and evaluation pool, places where they feel they can take some risks or places where they don't depend so much on third-party certifications. So, for instance, people who are deploying things like LAMP stacks love Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) because it has everything they need.

It will take time obviously, to have people deploying it in the heart of their networks and underneath their database servers because we have to build the relationships with those [software] vendors. That's not quite the work of a lifetime but it's certainly a multiyear exercise.

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