Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth talks about space, drones and smartphones

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, strives towards the vision of a converged handheld device

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of open-source supplier Canonical, continues to strive towards the vision of a converged handheld device, despite his failed attempt to raise $32m through crowdfunding for Ubuntu Edge, the smartphone that doubles as a desktop PC.

Recalling the crowdfunding initiative that fell short by $13m, he says: “I’m really proud how people stepped up and said it was a good idea. We concentrated all our efforts on the software and now we're shipping phones.”

The initiative has led to Canonical developing a version of its Ubuntu distribution of Linux for smartphones.

Harking back to the aims of Ubuntu Edge, Shuttleworth adds: “In October, the version of Ubuntu on the phone will start to give you the desktop experience, a pocket PC experience.” 

He expects that, by then, hardware from the major smartphone makers will be powerful enough to run this. “It is not about how many megapixels are on the camera, but how much RAM you have because it is a little PC and we have the ability to unleash its capabilities,” he says.

Shuttleworth believes such a device would sit alongside cloud computing, where CPU intensive processing would be offloaded. “The people who now say their smartphone is great for 90% of the work they do will be able to offload the heavy-duty work to the cloud,” he says.

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Core drives IoT

Canonical recently introduced a new rendition of Ubuntu called Ubuntu Core, which uses a different packaging mechanism designed to make updates more reliable, says Shuttleworth. “Ubuntu Core also enables apps to be isolated from one another, so that one app cannot mess up another app.”

From his recent blog entries, it appears Shuttleworth is also a big fan of drones. He claims the packaging and app isolation in Ubuntu core would be useful in application areas such as for drones and the internet of things (IoT), where the user should not have to worry about application conflicts and incompatibility. Whether it is a drone or some other IoT device, Shuttleworth believes it should be as easy to update as a smartphone.

“The idea that you can have apps on your drone is fascinating to me because this enables people to compete and innovate,” he says. For instance, Shuttleworth believes drone apps will enable consumers to try different autopilot systems or specialist capabilities such as weather tracking or being programmed to track a sports person around a field.

Beyond his fascination with drones, Shuttleworth says: “As devices become smart, we find ways to do things more efficiently by adding intelligence to the edge that help you make better decisions, which is just as relevant to business as it is for a hobby or fun.”

Ubuntu Core supports a range of devices, from the Raspberry Pi 2 to the server software inside high-end routers and switches. He says: “Tiny devices like a light switch will not have apps and do not need to run Ubuntu, but a large number of devices that take decisions will run Ubuntu.” 

For instance, Shuttleworth says a box that sensors talk to for sending data to the cloud would be an ideal candidate to run Ubuntu Core.

Datacentre automation

Shuttleworth is a big fan of IT automation. He says: “It is very hard to be truly elastic if you have to pick up the phone.” Referring to OpenStack, which aims to provide a common API and set of services for deploying physical servers, and virtual machines, he says: “Metal as a service is open source. Think of the datacentre as a pile of resources that you can repurpose, just like a cloud.”

Rather than relying on human operators, Shuttleworth says automation has the potential to get the most out of IT infrastructure. “It is really frustrating when someone is complaining about performance but their application is hammering only one core in a 24-core server,” he says.

With open-source software, Shuttleworth argues that the hardware choices are less important, because the code is available across x86, ARM or PowerPC processors. “Suddenly you have the ability to dynamically make choices on hardware,” he says.

At the same time, Shuttleworth says the extra coding that application developers used to worry about has now been abstracted into the platform. “My storage is automatically backing itself up, so I don’t have to back up the database as it is held in the storage system, which is itself being backed up.” 

Instead of dealing with such functionality per application, he says functions such as storage backup become fundamental datacentre services, which are built into a platform that developers can utilise.

First African in space

When asked how his trip as a cosmonaut to the International Space Station in 2002 has influenced him, Shuttleworth says: “It certainly made me want to work on things that have a global impact. South Africa will always be South Africa and aligned to British values. But we are all totally interdependent. It is the biggest delusion that we aren’t.” 

So his goal has been to try to work on constructive projects that have a positive impact on people. He says: “I love the idea that Ubuntu might enable a Chinese developer or kids anywhere in the world to do something great.”

Canonical is involved in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which aims to develop the world’s largest cluster of radio telescopes. It is a global initiative, headed up in the UK. South Africa and Australia are building Phase One of the SKA.

Shuttleworth is enthusiastic about the project, which he expects to push the limits of IT and engineering. “It is quite cool that a lot of the Square Kilometre Array is in South Africa,” he says. “It is a project of the same importance as Cern and it is great that Britain is in a prime position. I believe SKA will drive some really interesting technology.” 

Shuttleworth expects it will lead to the convergence of cloud and high-performance computing and data processing. “The amount of data it will generate is incredible,” he adds.

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