Interview for 'LUG Radio', released 2005-02-14:

Mark Shuttleworth on Ubuntu Marketing

Matt: Mark, thank you very much for joining us today, as you know this interview is really about the marketing side of Ubuntu. Will you be able to start by telling us what marketing means to the Ubuntu project?

Mark: We're not approaching [Ubuntu Marketing] from a corporate point-of-view. What we're really trying to do, is see whether the fundamental values of the Ubuntu-project-community resonate with the Open Source community. We focus very much on the technical platform because technical excellence is one of the one of the hallmarks of a good Open Source project and a good open source community.

We are focusing very heavily on the community aspects; the way we organise ourselves, the way we distribute Ubuntu and the way we encourage and support people to change it—those aren't really marketing efforts, but positioning efforts—they're saying ''this is what we're all about''. My hope is that if those ideas resonate with the open source community we'll move to the centre.

Jono: When I heard about Ubuntu, like many people, when it was quite an underground thing and there were a few rumblings about it here and there...

Mark: ...Yeah, "SSDS". [Shuttleworth's Secret Debian Startup]

Jono: At the moment, there seems to be no massive hype attached to it. People seem to be using it because they've heard that it's a technically good system. Do you plan to go down the same route as many of the other Linux distributors and hype it as much as possible?

Mark: Absolutely not. I think the way this is going to pan out; people will converge on something that works for them and so my focus is very much on making Ubuntu something that works for people. When you look at the structure of our team, it's very, very technically oriented. We don't have any real presence on the team that takes a traditional marketing approach. I think open-source is a phenomenal-phenomenon, but it's not a phenomenon that one should approach the way you would any consumer product.

The audience to market to—the users—are just not interested in that approach. For Ubuntu we want to take a completely different approach.

I imagine that some people will take Ubuntu and—if they want to—add proprietary software [to] produce "high-gloss", as it were, commercial products. They probably wouldn't carry the Ubuntu brand at all, we're not going to do that ourselves. I hope we start building a family of distributions that are derivatives, that share code, that share work, but which potentially take a different approach in identifying their core users and marketing approach to them.

Matt: Who do you see as the core Ubuntu users. Is it almost a meta-distribution where you provide the platform for other distributions or do you see there being direct end-users who are important to the project?

Mark: We do already have a very strong community and even with derivative distributions there is already a tremendous amount of cross-talk and cross-flow ...the sharing of ideas. I think derivative distributions and derived works are really important not just to distributions but to the whole open-source process. I think that's been borne out when we see a webserver, like Apache, gets stronger when other people take it and rebrand it, add[ing] to it... effectively investing some of their corporate or community culture in the product. I think we'll see the same thing happening with Ubuntu.

Jono: I was just going to say—this is related to the marketing-angle—it seems that that Canonical is basically a bottomless pit of cash at the moment. I don't want to dwell too much on the fact that you're filthy rich, Mark (and we're both very jealous...)

Mark: ...Yeah, disgustingly so! :-)

Jono: In terms of how much funding you've got, what is your focus on where you're going to spend this, is it going to be mainly spending it on employing the "cream of the crop" as you're done so-far?

Mark: That's the primary focus, there is a sort of pain-threshold which I won't cross, in the sense that I'm quite comfortable spending a certain amount of money to employ the very best team to focus on the work. But I fully appreciate that if your game plan is never, ever to charge for software then you have to keep costs quite tightly under control.

So while I maybe disgustingly wealthy and have been very fortunate in the past. I'm conscious that if we blow alot of cash now, we greatly reduce the chances of becoming sustainable because the revenue opportunities are always going to be somewhat indirect and so yes, we have picked up a phenomenal team and a team like that is not cheap, but in the bigger picture we're also running a very leen operation.

Jono: Do you think it's sustainable, obviously we're going through the honeymoon period at the moment, as an example, I was chatting to Jeff Waugh and he was saying how if a device isn't supported in Ubuntu, submit it as a bug—because it is a bug. I did that about a wireless-card and it was fixed and implemented in two weeks, which was incredible.

Do you think this can be sustainable so that one/two/three years down the line people are still going to be as responsive and reactive to the community?

Mark: One of the advantages we have is that we've said we'll focus our core team on regular releases, what that means is that there's a limit to the amount of stabilisation and testing that we are able to do, simply because we're forced into a six-month release cycle, which means that our team is focused on the 'head' effectively—we're much closer to the 'head' of development than Red Hat or Suse are ever going to be because they have a different definition of what they would consider a ''good release''. I think we will shall certainly be able to keep up with the current 'head' of open-source development.

In teams of breadth, I think alot of our ability to scale is going to depend on how quickly we can build a good community.

That's really just a question of being there and seeing who else comes along—the indications are phenomenal; we're constantly taking on requests for new-maintainers. We're trying to stretch to a process that is welcoming and supportive, even to folks who haven't yet proven themselves, but who demonstrate a willingness to participate and to participate with the right values and the right approach. If we can grow that community, then yes, I think we can stay right at the head.

In particular, if we can become—as I think we will—the distribution for upstream guys to participate in; the best distribution to showcase your own tools, your own software, your own platform. Then I think we can really grow the team dramatically.

Matt: Mark, what role do you think LUGs [Linux User Groups] and grass-roots advocacy play in the promotion of Ubuntu, is that pretty-much central to the way you see Ubuntu being promoted?

Mark: Absolutely, as I said, we don't have a formal marketing programme, we're not going to be buying newspaper ads and approaching this in a classical marketing sense. The community that we very much hope to be apart of, to share with, is the open-source community and that is best defined from an advocacy point-of-view and a growth point-of-view through LUGs, through volunteer efforts and through individuals.

...It's extraordinary, I think if you were to look back at this time in history in ten years time you'd say that this was a time of real change in the software-industry and that doesn't happen very often. That change is being driven by individuals, more than by organisations or marketing budgets.

Matt: What role do you think there is for the more-traditional distributions who are combining commercialism with the grass-roots promotion with the more commercial side of things. Red Hat is the typical example who are trying to build a community through Fedora, but at the same they're hoping to make big bucks through selling licenses and through the more traditionally commercial approach.

Mark: I'm never a fan of balancing opposing ideas, it's very difficult to do. If you look at the Space Shuttle, it was designed to do too many different things. As a result, it's too big, too cumbersome and too dangerous. What works best in life is to have something which has a clear idea of what it wants to be and runs at that.

I think if you try and define yourself as someone who's trying to sell Free Software and then at the same time, want to build an Open Source community, you have depth philosophical divides within your organisation which are always going to be difficult to bridge.

The community-oriented guys are going to be saying ''Use Fedora'' and the marketing guys are going to be saying ''Use Red Hat Enterprise''.

It's very difficult to cross that divide and that's why I've set out with Ubuntu saying we will define ourselves as a non-commercial entity in the sense that we will never, ever, charge for Free Software.

Jono: In terms of your involvement with Ubuntu, if anyone is to go along to the Ubuntu mailing-lists and have a browse around, or read Ubuntu traffic, obviously you do take part in the discussions—which is an admiral thing in itself—because I'm guessing that not many people in your position in competitive companies are so involved in the process. Where does your involvement with the technical decisions of Ubuntu begin, and where does it end?

Mark: I sit on the Technical Board, but I recognise that there are far better qualified people than me to make some of these decisions. Where I push very hard, is in terms of having a clear idea of what the end product should look like.

I'm a big fan of simplicity; a big fan of openness and the ability to recognise that other people may want to do something differently, so I'll drive ideas that I think will stimulate the Ubuntu community in those sort of ways. That's why I'm a really big fan of the Kubuntu [KDE Ubuntu] movement.

We picked GNOME, but I recognise that there are alot of people out there who love KDE and I'm working as hard as I can to encourage the KDE community to do their own version of Ubuntu. I think that's going to be a reality for "Hoary [Hedgehog"] which is our next release in April and that's fantastic! That's the area I'll really drive.

The 'deep back-magic Foo', I leave to Matt Zimmerman, Colin Watson, James Troup and so on—They are a superb team and I feel like I have to paddle very fast to keep up.

Matt: On the business side of things, I think all of us have already used Ubuntu and find it the best distribution for what we want to do. I think a question many of us want to know the answer to—if you're never going to charge for it and you're putting all this money in, how do you see Ubuntu turning into a self-sustaining, self-funding project?

Mark: The first side of that is sustainability, which is matching revenues and expenses, so we have to keep the expenses as tight as possible. It's not cheap to hire a fantastic team, keep them focused, keep them interested in the project. But at the same time we don't have a lot of the 'fat' of a large corporation, we certainly don't have alot of excess of the dot-com-bubble years. If you talk to the guys, they'll tell you that we stay in cheap hotels, we fly economy and everybody shares rooms at our conferences. It's very much a cost-conscious focus and the aim of that is to maximise our chances of getting to sustainability.

The next thing really has alot to do with gaining a critical-mass of users. I really do believe that if we have wide-spread adoption, even if that's wide-spread adoption—not specifically of Ubuntu, but of one of the Ubuntu-related products or derivative distributions—that within that critical mass of users we will be able to generate revenue without charging for the software or doing offensive stuff like forcing particular software choices on people, or fighting over preferences of choices of particular media-streamers... Now clearly, that is defining our role as being substantially more limited than the way Microsoft would like to define their role.

I just don't believe that there will be another 'Microsoft' and I think that anyone who starts a business now with that as an end-goal is barking up completely the wrong tree.

But that doesn't mean we can't play a highly-professional role, charge good rates for professional services, [for users] who need very specialised support and want to get it from the people who produce the actual platform itself.

Jono: Unfortunately, we're going to have to wrap things up—first of all, on behalf of all the LugRadio listeners thank you for taking the time to sit and talk to us. But before you go, there's one question which I think all of us want to ask; What's it like being in Space?

Mark: It's everything you might imagine and quite a bit more, it's moments of terror, moments of absolute bliss; moment of... I won't ever say moments of boredom, but if I think you were up there for six months you'd have times when you were very ready to come home...

Jono: I'm assuming you went on that machine that you see in documentaries and films where you spin around really fast and your face goes all rubbery?

Mark: That's quite an extraordinary feeling. The very big one at Star City draws more electricity than the rest of Star City combined and it'll drive your chin through you chest! It's quite an incredible experience.

Matt: Just one final question from me—you mentioned the Shuttle earlier, when you went into space did you actually find out how much a Shuttle is worth?

Mark: I reckon they'll be museum pieces pretty soon, I don't think there's much future for the Shuttles, as soon as they retire it and build something that looks more like a Soyuz, the better for everybody.

Jono: Thank you very much, Mark. It's been great talking to you.

Mark: Cheers!