Although open source software is widely celebrated and admired, who among us really know how to use it? That has always been its big drawback: only geeks really know how to modify and improve the code. Open source software may be the backbone of the Internet, and Linux may be popular on servers, but for ordinary schmoes like me, simply installing the software on a PC can be an insuperable barrier. That is now changing with the spread of Ubuntu, a free, user-friendly operating system that combines Linux with a word processor, Web browser, spreadsheet application and PDF reader. The software is distributed by CD, upgraded every six months, and is easy for ordinary computer users to install.
Mark Shuttleworth, an entrepreneur from Cape Town, South Africa, is the driving force behind Ubuntu . (The word is a Zulu and Xhosa term that translates as “universal bond of sharing between humans.”) Shuttleworth sold his digital-security company for $500 million, and since 2004 has spent $25 million in developing and distributing Ubuntu to the people of the world. His goal is to distribute localized versions of Ubuntu to dozens of countries where people cannot afford (or even acquire) proprietary software in their own language. “There are some 350 languages in the world with more than a million speakers,” Shuttleworth told The Economist (June 7, 2007). “Free software is only translated in a significant way into about 20 of those, although this is already a lot greater penetrating than proprietary software.”
Over time, Ubuntu could help people in many developing countries join the Internet culture. Its international proliferation could also help transform operating systems and key software applications into near-free commodities. Why buy Microsoft software if you can get user-friendly open source alternatives that can be upgraded and shared for free, and which are supported by a vast international community?
More than six million CDs with Ubuntu have been distributed already. While diffusion is still in its early stages, momentum is growing. Just this month, the French Parliament switched its computers to Ubuntu. Dell, the computer maker, offers computers pre-loaded with the system, and makes money by selling technical support and service for the software. Michael Dell says he has Ubuntu on his personal computer.
Ubuntu represents the next, more mature stage in the evolution of free/open source software. The project is not about bashing proprietary software, but about building better software and sharing communities on a global scale. What’s fascinating is how efficient the Ubuntu commons has been. For a fraction of the advertising budget for Microsoft’s new Vista operating system, Ubuntu is reaching millions of people with free, high-quality software that gives them greater user freedoms — and this viral growth is likely to expand.
Ubuntu is also likely to seed a new generation of innovators who in time could out-perform Americans locked into the culture of proprietary software. As Linux becomes the standard platform for the next generation of tech innovation, it could also begin to dissolve proprietary technical barriers that currently make various portable devises incompatible. A new interoperability via Linux could unleash powerful new rounds of bottom-up innovation.