Afronaut is skiing to the cutting edge of IT

March 4, 2007

MARK Shuttleworth, South Africa’s billionaire Afronaut, is planning to live to 100 — and to have spent all his money by then.

He does not see the need to increase his billions “trying to climb some chart” and he is prepared “to spend chunks of it having fun” — Shuttleworth is currently on a two-month stay in Verbier, Switzerland. When not having fun he spends the bulk of his time working on Ubuntu, a free Linux-based operating system.

Shuttleworth, who got R3.5- billion for selling his company Thawte, is combining work and play at Verbier, working on Ubuntu and touching up on his skiing and snowboarding.

“Due to the miracle of broadband, I don’t have to be in any one place,” he explained.

He said his skiing is atrocious but that his boarding is not too bad.

He maintains an office in London, where he lives, and it is a meeting point for the people working on Ubuntu, who are spread around the world. They meet about four times a year.

Shuttleworth is a long-time advocate of open-source technology and Ubuntu, which started in 2004.

Ubuntu is used by the opposite extremes of the computer culture — in places where people need something that is straightforward, reliable and doesn’t need maintenance, like on granny’s computer, and the power users — the Internet-savvy users who want control over their desktops.

He is still working on attracting those people who fall in between.

Ubuntu is not a South African product, although it is relatively popular here. The government recently approved a policy to implement free-source software, and Shuttleworth hopes open-source will take off in SA.

“I have been banging this drum in the [International Advisory Council on Information, Society & Development] council for years,” he said, adding that should open-source be rolled out in SA, it would be critical that there be enough middle management to oversee the project.

He said there were role models to follow if SA wanted to be at the cutting edge of open-source.

“China has been superb at harnessing Linux, as has Korea, and Spain has made open-source the focus of its education efforts.”

Although IT and telecoms are a focus of the SA government’s Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgisa), Shuttleworth believes SA can move forward in these areas, only if there is “ strong commitment from the industry and regulators”.

Although he does not live in SA, he “will always be a South African, and I am thrilled when I pick up SA accents on the [ski] lifts”.

“My family still lives in SA and the overall asset management strategy is still led from SA, but in the past couple of years I’ve only spent a week or two in the country.”

For someone who has made billions and gone into space, Shuttleworth is happy to focus on Ubuntu.

Having been at the cutting edge, first in terms of the Internet, through Thawte, and then space, he believes that “Ubuntu is the thing that most represents something I can be involved in that I can fundamentally change”.

Ubuntu, he said, is “at the cutting edge of another fundamental change — the shift to realising the value of collaboration.”

While Ubuntu doesn’t cover its own costs, “the revenue picture looks promising and I am pretty confident it will be self-sustaining. I am, however, happy to underwrite it. There is no intent to create a Microsoft, but a self- sustaining platform.”

Shuttleworth concedes that now that he has made a lot of money and explored space, it would be nice to change the world.

“I am entirely unmotivated by trying to be a multibillionaire. I want all the money to be gone by the time I would turn 100.”

There are important things to be done around medicine, energy and the environment, but these are not really areas of strength for Shuttleworth.

But he does have a list of things he would still like to do . “This [Ubuntu] is an area where I can make a difference.

“I am really not a good multi-tasker, but I do have a list, and if Ubuntu became self-sustainable I would find new projects. There is a list of things which are really interesting, but you won’t see me trying to juggle Ubuntu. I’m quite boring really.”

Shuttleworth revealed that he has had a girlfriend for three years — a Danish woman who loves SA. He does not intend to get married or have children.

She is not with him in Switzerland, saving him the embarrassment of snowboarding in front of her with kids. He’s too scared of the better 16-year-olds — a typical geek.

“Who other than a geek would spend a Saturday night in a ski resort writing codes — at least that’s what I have to tell my girlfriend.”

Shuttleworth in a nutshell

MARK Shuttleworth is the founder of the Ubuntu Project, an enterprise Linux distribution that is freely available worldwide.

He studied finance and information technology at the University of Cape Town.

He sold his company, Thawte, an IT company specialising in digital certificates and Internet privacy, to VeriSign in 1999 for R3.5- billion. He then founded HBD Venture Capital and The Shuttleworth Foundation. He moved to London in 2001. He went into space in April 2002 on the Russian Soyuz mission TM34 to the International Space Station.

In early 2004 he founded the Ubuntu Project.

He likes: Chelsea, finally seeing something obvious for the first time, daydreaming, Frank Sinatra, sundowners, Durbanville, flirting, string theory, particle physics, Linux, reincarnation, snow, mig-29s, travel, lime marmalade, Russian saunas, weightlessness, broadband, Iain M Banks, skinny-dipping, fancy dress, fast convertibles on country roads, the international space station, artificial intelligence.

He dislikes: admin, legalese, running, wet, grey winters, salary negotiations, public speaking.

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