Open source is the business

South African IT entrepreneur and the world’s first “Afronaut” Mark Shuttleworth takes ten tough ones from the M&G Online.

Open-source software: what difference will it make to my life?

If you’re new to computers, then open source is a whole new universe waiting to be discovered, at no real cost. Almost every kind of application is freely available as open-source software—from business applications such as word processors, presentation software and spreadsheets to specialist tools such as programming languages and databases.

Open source is the best way for a student or child to discover the world of the computer, because there is no limit or restriction on your ability to learn how the software works, since it comes with full source code.

So, for new computer users, open source is “the business”. If you’re in the software industry, then open source is interesting because all indications are that it will come to be the default on the desktop, just as it has come to dominate the server software scene.

Why should I change from Windows, Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer to open-source products such as Linux and the likes?

If what you have works for you, then I would not recommend changing. If, however, you are considering an upgrade or buying new computers, then open source is certainly worth considering.

If you need to run Windows, then there is a lot of open-source software for Windows too—you don’t have to switch to a Linux-based operating system such as Ubuntu to get the benefits of open source. For example, on my Windows PC I don’t have Microsoft Office, I use OpenOffice from www.openoffice.org, which is freely available and has a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package that are compatible with Microsoft Office.

I also use the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail software, from www.mozilla.org, which have had very few, if any, virus attacks against them.

In general, open-source software is cheaper to acquire and manage, improves faster, has better support for internationalisation and is more secure than the older proprietary alternatives.

If open source takes hold, what will our desktops/computers look like in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully they’ll look pretty familiar! Open-source software looks just like older proprietary software, it’s just produced and licensed freely. Also, it tends to be easier to get different pieces of open-source software to talk to one another, because the people who produce it have an interest in making collaboration happen and using open standards rather than locking you into their software.

A big area of innovation in open source is collaborative work, allowing you to work on a document simultaneously with other people, and I think this sort of open-source innovation will be the main driver of new products and concepts in the information technology industry over the next 10 years.

As much as people moan about Microsoft, aren’t Microsoft products superior and easier to use than many open-source programmes available today?

Certainly not. Of course, it depends on the application. For example, the open-source Apache web server is generally considered to be much better than any web-server software from Microsoft, and as a result, Apache is the most widely used web-server software on the internet.

In desktop office applications, I think Microsoft still has an edge, but the gap is narrowing so fast and innovation in the open-source environment is so rapid that I am confident any gap will have disappeared in two or three years. That’s why I’m advocating that South Africans embrace open source now, ahead of the curve.

Is Bill Gates enemy number one?

Not at all—few people in the world have been effective at managing a small business and a large business, and Gates has been brilliant throughout Microsoft’s history. In the 1980s, we didn’t have the internet, so a single company was probably the most efficient way to produce software that worked well together.

Nowadays, the internet allows collaboration between companies and volunteers, which has resulted in the rise of open-source software. You just couldn’t make open source work in the 1980s because too few people were connected, but today it’s proving to be the best way to produce software.

You are a capitalist, yet you preach open-source software? How do you reconcile that?

The emergence of open source isn’t the end of the software industry by any means, it’s just yet another big change in an industry that thrives on change. I think open source is the way of the future, so I put that into practice as much through my non-profit foundation work in education as through my business investments.

I believe the business model in the software industry will have to evolve, so I’m investing in companies like Canonical that have newer business models that might (or might not) work in a world without software licensing fees. Only time will tell which ideas will prosper.

Was your very successful business that made you billions based on open-source software?

Yes, entirely. The web server and database software that held the business together was all open source (in those days I used the Apache web server and the MySQL database, though now I prefer the PostgreSQL database). A lot of the core cryptography at Thawte was also handled by open-source tools.

How have you come to terms with your wealth?

It’s a struggle, but… :-)

I can’t seriously pretend that it’s a hardship, but it is a sword with several sharp edges and no real handle. Certainly, it’s changed my material life, but I’m constantly reminded that the things which make me happiest are only complicated by wealth, particularly new personal relationships.

Being able to do whatever I want, in many ways, creates the responsibility to try to do the right thing for me and for the people I care about. And what’s really interesting is the extent to which time is a great leveller. No matter how wealthy you are, you get exactly the same amount of time in your teens, twenties, thirties and so on.

Instead of being locked into a specific job, I have to choose very carefully what I do with every single day—there are more projects that I can dream about than I have time to do properly, or even funds to do, oddly enough. So it’s a great privilege and at the same time a great responsibility.

Are you the Bill Gates of Africa?

No, I’m one of a few Mark Shuttleworths of Africa, and apologies to the other guys who had the name first, I hope I’m not wearing it out! As to comparisons with Bill Gates, I think he’s achieved far more than me in the way he has steered a large and ultimately huge company through several decades of change, and I admire that skill greatly.

It’s something I don’t think I’d have been able to achieve; I don’t have the same stamina. Even if open source is now going to dominate the industry, it doesn’t detract at all from the accomplishments of Gates and the Microsoft team in the past.

When are you going to the moon? Have you been in touch with Richard Branson about more space travel?

For the next space mission, which I hope one day to have the opportunity to fly, the moon wouldn’t be out of the question. But I think it would involve more “Nazdarovya” than “Virgin”.

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