Mark Shuttleworth on the future of Ubuntu

The Register has an interesting bit on Mark Shuttleworth who is the founder of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. It is a great piece with Shuttleworth himself describing what his goals are for Ubuntu. Reading the article you can’t help but love the guy, but more importantly he engenders the open source and Linux attitudes that I was describing in my earlier post. It is interesting to note that so far all of the money that he has put into Ubuntu and Canonical (the commercial enterprise around Ubuntu) hasn’t returned any money, but he is still positive that eventually it will.

The bigger picture here is just exactly what his business model is. Towards the end the article highlights this:

When asked if anyone can make money selling a desktop Linux, Shuttleworth was blunt and candid. “No. I don’t think anybody can. And that is a good thing.” The revenue model that Shuttleworth had when he created the Ubuntu project and the Canonical support organization was to give away the software and patches and rely on tech support and other services that are required by some users and businesses to generate the revenues that give people at Canonical their jobs.

I see this as a major stepping stone in modern day society. I like the term Mike Masnick at Techdirt has said about the Economics of Free. The idea is using something free to generate revenue in a different way. Mike is often using this as a tell to why major label record companies need to adapt to new business models or face disappearing with the changing times. Essentially bands could give away recordings to generate a following and sell scarce goods (t-shirts, concert tickets, autographs). Google is probably the best example of this. You pay nothing to search on their website or use Gmail and yet they are generating billions of dollars, but how? They give away their search and in return have an audience for advertisers. That audience would not exist if google were charging for search privileges. In fact, we would likely not be referring to “search” as “googleing” if it weren’t for google using the economics of free, likely it would be an obscure search engine generating very little money. Obscurity pays nothing and the idea is that by giving things away for free you generate momentum that may help you move out of obscurity. Some seem to think that open source and Linux is a losing battle and that you cannot make money when you give things away, but this is simply untrue. Perhaps you can’t make money at this moment from Linux, but the tide seems to be changing and at least Shuttleworth seems confident that Canonical will be making money eventually. For his sake I hope he is right. I particularly hope that the ending paragraph is correct in asserting that one day even Microsoft might be giving away their OS and opt for a support model. We’ll see what the future holds.

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