On Monday, CNET had an interesting profile of South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth who, not satisfied with being the world's second space tourist and the first African in orbit, has created Ubuntu, the most user-friendly version of Linux yet available for desktop and laptop computers. Shuttleworth is using Ubuntu to take on Microsoft globally, but especially in places where low incomes make paying Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) licensing fees impractical.
"The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference."
-- Charles Howard, Seabiscuit
First, Crow is On the Menu Tonight
Those of you who have followed Silicon Hutong for a while will know that I have long been a Linux-skeptic, believing firmly that despite its obvious advantages on servers, Linux would never be in a position to displace Windows on the desktop.
Well, I was wrong.
Shuttleworth and his team at Ubuntu have done something amazing - they've created a truly usable desktop operating system that rivals WindowsXP in ease of use and features, accomplishing finally what many of us so long felt impossible - they've mirrored the simple elegance of the underlying system with an interface and applications that make it a delight to use.
Personally, if I were setting up a company, a school, or a non-profit organization tomorrow I would use it on nearly every desktop and laptop. In fact, I'm running it on my MacBookPro alongside Mac OS X. It's that good. (I'm not ready to replace OS X yet - I rely far too much on software like NoteBook, DayLite, CopyWrite, Visual Thesaurus , the iApps and a host of others to change. But I'm having fun tinkering, and if I had to give up the Mac for any reason, I'd feel a lot better about it now than I did before.)
Shuttleworth v. Microsoft
So, in the brewing battle of Windows vs. Ubuntu, Mark Shuttleworth's stated belief that "software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local languages and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit."
If you think that's all standard Linux/Open Source talk, you're right. The difference is that instead of trying to convert school systems, governments, and enterprises in the developed world, Ubuntu is attacking Windows in it's soft underbelly - Africa, Asia, Latin America, and those places around the world where the money for a software license is more urgently needed to feed a kid a hot breakfast every day for six months.
Shuttleworth talks a good game, and I for one wish him well. But the thought that Microsoft will sit idly by and allow something as trivial as a free operating system get in the way of world domination is probably wishful thinking.
Linux generally and Ubuntu specifically may well be sidelined by Microsoft's newfound largesse in many parts of the world. Suddenly, those license fees get real flexible when governments, school districts, and non-profits start to vocally consider open source. Threaten to go Linux, and watch the folks from Redmond get really, really nice.
Microsoft is now pledging money for IT centers, donating licenses for schools, and providing NGOs with whatever they need. Because this is war, after all, and in Microsoft offices around the world - and here in China- Linux is the enemy.
Can Windows Become Obsolete?
In some sense, all of this is good. After all, if there is a definition of "justice," it is seeing Microsoft break down and give away that for which they have charged so dearly, manhandled in much the same way their competitors and others have alleged they were treated by Microsoft. And if it means that there are schools, foundations, and government offices with computers that would never have had them otherwise, so much the better.
If, in the end, Linux finds its way onto the same plane occupied by the Ghosts of Operating Systems Past, if nothing else we can say it put pressure on Microsoft to moderate, for a while, its highhanded ways, and to cough up billions of dollars in software and cash ($250 million in China alone) to help make owning and using computers a little less costly for a lot of people.
But I wonder how long Microsoft can stick with this strategy. Call it what you will, Microsoft is fighting a war of attrition against Linux, throwing money around the battlefield every time Linux appears to be making a significant inroad someplace. Up to this point, the battles have been few enough and small enough that the costs have not been significant.
At some stage, this is likely to start getting very, very expensive, and Microsoft's costs are too high to sustain a wide effort for long, and that stage will come when several things happen at once: perhaps when Microsoft gets a bit too aggressive with its "software asset management" program, where companies and institutions are "persuaded" to allow Microsoft auditors into their IT systems to figure out how much more cash Microsoft can get out of them.
Perhaps when computer manufacturers are tired of the hassles involved in pre-loading Windows on their products.
Or, perhaps, when one of the distributions of Linux - possibly Ubuntu, possibly another - catches and surpasses Windows in usability to such an extent that for a broad base of the computing population Windows is just so old, clunky, and so uncool , that it gets set aside and forgotten. In the wake of the delays and feature-shrinkage surrounding Windows Vista, is that so inconceivable?
I think that's what Shuttleworth is working toward. And that's when the world will have the "free choice" Steve Ballmer likes to talk about.