Cosmonaut takes on Windows

For technology entrepreneur and cosmonaut Mark Shuttleworth the next battle is to take on the might of Microsoft on its core territory – the desktop.

So you have made half a billion dollars and you have paid for a trip to space. What on earth do you do next? Some might consider politics, others would sit back and enjoy a life of leisure.

But for technology entrepreneur and cosmonaut Mark Shuttleworth the next battle is to take on the might of Microsoft on its core territory – the desktop.

He has developed a complete suite of software for personal computers that handles everything from the inner workings to word processing. It is called Ubuntu, the African word for brotherhood.

The project is based on Linux, the free operating system written largely by volunteers and widely used by businesses, governments and other organisations to run servers, the computers that sit at the heart of networks.

Ubuntu is meant to take this complex but powerful system and make it easy for nontechnical people to use. Hence the project’s mission statement – "Linux for human beings".

A computer running Ubuntu looks much like one running Microsoft’s Windows. The interface is based on similar menus, icons and windows, and users can surf the internet with the popular Firefox browser, or edit documents and spreadsheets with OpenOffice.

Instead of the largely blue world of Windows XP, Ubuntu is predominantly brown. Some quirky features hint at its African origin, such as the little burst of drumming that rings out when an application opens.

Less than two years after launch, Ubuntu is top by some distance on a popularity chart for different flavours of Linux compiled by website DistroWatch. Estimates put the number of computers running Ubuntu at up to 6-million and doubling every eight months.

Ubuntu is distributed entirely free. Users can download it and use it without paying at all, and Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical, will even post a free installation compact disc to anyone who requests it.

This is possible because of Shuttleworths vast fortune. He made $575 million selling his internet company, Thawte Consulting, in 1999, and invests about $10m a year in Ubuntu. It is unlikely to make him any money, at least not for several years.

Shuttleworth launched the project because he believes he is in the vanguard of a revolution.

"It is very high risk," he says. "It is not a sensible business model but shaping the digital platform of the future is an incredibly interesting position to be in."

Linux consultant and author Tom Adelstein thinks it is still hard to use.

"From a usability point of view, Ubuntu is ahead of the others, I think. But it is still in the Linux bag – you have to be computer literate to use it. Microsoft is still far ahead on that."

A key stage in Ubuntu’s growth will be persuading personal computer makers to sell machines with Ubuntu already installed. Google has developed its own version of Ubuntu, called Goobuntu. Shuttleworth says he is in talks with the city of Munich about creating an edition for them.

"My instinct tells me that free software is going to be a significant force on the desktop," he says.

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Cosmonaut takes on Windows