Published: January 10, 2009-- THEY'RE either hapless pests or the very people capable of overthrowing Windows. Take your pick.
"It feels pretty clear to me that the open process produces better stuff," says Mark Shuttleworth, whose team at Canonical is leading the Ubuntu project. In December, hundreds of these controversial software developers gathered for one week at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They came from all over the world, sporting many of the usual signs of software mercenaries: jeans, ponytails, unruly facial hair and bloodshot eyes.
But rather than preparing to code for the highest bidder, the developers were coordinating their largely volunteer effort to try to undermine Microsoft’s Windows operating system for PCs, which generated close to $17 billion in sales last year.
All the fuss at the meeting centered on something called Ubuntu and a man named Mark Shuttleworth, the charismatic 35-year-old billionaire from South Africa who functions as the spiritual and financial leader of this coding clan.
Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through its low, low price: $0.
More than 10 million people are estimated to run Ubuntu today, and they represent a threat to Microsoft's hegemony in developed countries and perhaps even more so in those regions catching up to the technology revolution.
"If we're successful, we would fundamentally change the operating system market," Mr. Shuttleworth said during a break at the gathering, the Ubuntu Developer Summit. "Microsoft would need to adapt, and I don’t think that would be unhealthy."
Linux is free, but there is still money to be made for businesses flanking the operating system. Companies like I.B.M., Hewlett-Packard and Dell place Linux on more than 10 percent of the computers they sell as servers, and businesses pay the hardware makers and others, like the software sellers Red Hat and Oracle, to fix any problems and keep their Linux-based systems up to date.
But Canonical, Mr. Shuttleworth's company that makes Ubuntu, has decided to focus its near-term aspirations on the PCs used by workers and people at home.
The notion of a strong Linux-based competitor to Windows and, to a lesser extent, Apple's Mac OS X has been an enduring dream of advocates of open-source software. They champion the idea that software that can be freely altered by the masses can prove cheaper and better than proprietary code produced by stodgy corporations. Try as they might, however, Linux zealots have failed in their quest to make Linux mainstream on desktop and notebook computers. The often quirky software remains in the realm of geeks, not grandmothers.
With Ubuntu, the devotees believe, things might finally be different.
"I think Ubuntu has captured people's imaginations around the Linux desktop," said Chris DiBona, the program manager for open-source software at Google. "If there is a hope for the Linux desktop, it would be them."
Close to half of Google's 20,000 employees use a slightly modified version of Ubuntu, playfully called Goobuntu.
PEOPLE encountering Ubuntu for the first time will find it very similar to Windows. The operating system has a slick graphical interface, familiar menus and all the common desktop software: a Web browser, an e-mail program, instant-messaging software and a free suite of programs for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
While relatively easy to use for the technologically savvy, Ubuntu - and all other versions of Linux - can challenge the average user. Linux cannot run many applications created for Windows, including some of the most popular games and tax software, for example. And updates to Linux can send ripples of problems through the system, causing something as basic as a computer's display or sound system to malfunction.