‘I’d love to work with Microsoft’

Duncan McLeod spoke to software billionaire Mark Shuttleworth last week about his Ubuntu Linux deal with Dell, the Microsoft software patent fracas, and his desire to return to live in SA. This is an edited extract.

By - June 8, 2007

Dell recently agreed to sell PCs preloaded with Ubuntu Linux. Please talk about the mechanics of the deal.

It’s not so much a deal with Dell as a decision Dell took on the back of strongly voiced demand from its customers in the US. It took the decision to approach us and launch the initiative. There are some limitations. It’s US-only at the moment and it’s a nice range of computers, but it’s not Dell’s full set of consumer offerings. However, it’s a phenomenal step in terms of people’s understanding of the suitability of Linux as a general-purpose desktop platform.

Will you make any money out of the arrangement with Dell?

Yes. There’s an option when people buy the computers to buy a support contract. The business model is very much about giving the platform away for free. That meets some of my philanthropic goals, but I really believe it is the right strategy in the free software world.

How many Dell customers will select Ubuntu?

That’s the big question. Will there be sufficient demand for Dell to maintain this as an open line? It may do so just because Linux users are very vocal. But my hope is that there is sufficient demand to justify Dell keeping a small headcount and factory process associated with this.

Linux vendor Novell recently signed a controversial deal with Microsoft. What is your take on it?

Microsoft is arguing that Linux violates its patents and that Novell is paying for the privilege of using that intellectual property, and it says that everybody else should as well. As soon as Microsoft said that, Novell said: “Hang on a minute, we never agreed to anything like that.” The two parties hadn’t even agreed on what they were agreeing on.

Microsoft is asking people to pay them for patents, but they won’t say which ones. If a guy walks into a shop and says: “It’s an unsafe neighbourhood, why don’t you pay me 20 bucks and I’ll make sure you’re okay,” that’s illegal. It’s racketeering. What Microsoft is doing with intellectual property is exactly the same. It’s a great company and I have great admiration for it, but this was not a well considered position.

So you wouldn’t do a deal?

No, absolutely not. But the time will come when the folks at Microsoft who have a clear vision for the company as a participant in this community, rather than as a hostile antagonist, will win. At that point I’d love to work with Microsoft. It’s not an evil empire. It’s just a company that is efficiently grounded in the 1980s. New leadership and new thinking might make it a more effective partner for us.

More importantly, people need to understand that the risk of a patent suit associated with Linux, which is a real risk, is far greater from someone other than Microsoft. Signing a deal with Microsoft doesn’t solve the patent problem at all. It doesn’t give you patent immunity. It gives you immunity from a suit from Microsoft and I really don’t think that’s the threat. Microsoft won’t win a patent war, so I don’t think they’ll start one.

Who would the aggressor be?

It would typically be a small firm that does nothing but hold patents.

Will your main focus remain Ubuntu?

I have other things I’m involved in, though those tend to be at a high and strategic capital allocation level. Ubuntu represents 2%-10% of my asset base, depending on whether I look at it now or at what I expect to spend in the next couple of years. But it takes up almost all of my time. It’s the one I’m most passionate about and where I hope to be able to make the biggest difference.

Have you emigrated?

Yes, in 2001, and have been living in London rather reluctantly since. The primary motivation is exchange controls. I found that every time I wanted to make an investment globally I needed to go through a very random process with the Reserve Bank. These regulations are just not suited for rapid, small investments in risky, forward-looking projects. If they drop the regulations, the moment I’m certain that Ubuntu is on a clear trajectory of its own, I’ll move back to Cape Town. It’s where I want to be.

A full audio transcript of the interview is available at www.fmtech.co.za

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