Long-time open-source software executive Matt Asay recently left Alfresco to join Canonical as its Chief Operating Officer. Matt also founded the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC), which takes place this week, and is speaking at The Linux Foundation’s Collaboration Summit next month. Matt took some time recently to share his perspective with me on why Canonical can take Linux places Red Hat can’t, how Linux beats Apple, and how the Ubuntu community’s passion and focus on design will change the way people see Linux for a long time.
After four years at an open source application company, you’re coming back to Linux. Why now? And, why Canonical?
Asay: I loved working for Alfresco, a company with excellent technical and business leadership. I joined Alfresco because I wanted executive mentoring, first, and to help build an explosive, profitable company. Both were fulfilled in my four years there.
I wanted a new challenge – one where I could apply the lessons learned at Alfresco and have success reflected industry wide. However, I didn’t want to leave my friends at Alfresco unless it was to work with other good friends.
Canonical offered me both.
When Mark [Shuttleworth] texted me shortly before Christmas it was a surprise, but a welcome one. We’ve been friends for several years and have talked extensively about business, but never specifically about me joining him at Canonical. His text hit me at the right time.
Never has the opportunity for Linux been more promising; and as Linux goes, so goes the open-source industry. Canonical can take Ubuntu Linux into markets and opportunities that no one else can, including Red Hat, a company for which I have deep and abiding respect and affection (in part because of the wonderful people I know there).
We have the chance to turn the technology world upside down. At Canonical we have Google or Apple-sized ambition, because we have community that dwarfs both of them put together. Our task is to work with the community to fulfill that opportunity. I believe we can. That’s what I signed up to accomplish.
You mentioned in your blog post about the move that you were intrigued by new challenges like cloud computing, consumer Linux adoption and community development. You’re on a panel at the Linux Foundation’s Collaboration Summit next month talking about the “open cloud.” Can you give us a peek: Does open source mean open cloud?
Asay: It doesn’t, but that should be a key component. As my friend Dries Buytaert of Drupal fame recently told ReadWriteWeb, the cloud threatens to lock in users by making it hard (or meaningless) to move data from one cloud/SaaS system to another. Open source mitigates against this tendency toward lock-in.
On the other hand, just because something is open source doesn’t mean it’s truly open. Source code may be open but the development process is closed, leaving users little better off than with proprietary licensing.
I believe open clouds are a combination of open source, open data, open APIs and open development. It’s at this confluence that strong communities form. Indeed, this might be the best evidence of truly open source/open clouds:
Can Linux compete with Apple?
Asay: I’m not sure this is the right question, as Linux already competes with and beats Apple in a huge array of devices. Linux spans everything from HPC to embedded devices and everything in between. Apple cannot compete with that. Could you build a supercomputer using Mac hardware? Sure, but you’d be mortgaging your house to do so and even then, the Mac would likely lose.
Of course, Apple doesn’t want to compete in such markets. It’s famously focused and opts to do a few things very well, like its iPhone and laptops.
Can Linux compete in these markets? Yes. Of course it can. Look at Android as perhaps the best example of effectively competing with Apple in mobile. Apparently Apple agrees with me, as its patent infringement suit against HTC is almost certainly a shot over Google’s bow, as The New York Times recently suggested. Apple is worried. And it should be.
On the desktop, too, Linux is going to give Apple (and Microsoft) a run for its money. Google is at the forefront of this with Chrome OS, which challenges the very foundations of Apple’s OS, as well as that of Windows.
But that’s just one front in the competition. There’s also the corporate desktop, where Apple competes by osmosis (if at all) and the traditional consumer desktop, where I think Canonical offers an exceptional experience with Ubuntu. I’m biased, of course, but given how much of a Mac fan I was (and still am), when I say that I haven’t felt the need to run back to my Mac after four weeks on Ubuntu, that’s meaningful.
Apple makes beautiful products, products that can be very easy to use and sometimes groundbreaking. We in the open-source world can learn much from the software Apple writes.
But having used both Ubuntu Linux and Mac OS X, as well as Windows, I just don’t think using Linux is tantamount to donning some hair-shirt to pay penance in the name of freedom.
The desktop – including Apple’s – hasn’t materially changed in the past 10 years. Real innovation, therefore, is happening at the edges of the desktop: in the cloud (tying desktop software to server-based services), for example, but also in new form factors (which Linux is pioneering as much as Apple with its iPad) and in new experiences (like “instant-on” technology like Ubuntu’s WebNow or DeviceVM).
In sum, yes, Apple leads in some areas, but I think if we were to tally up its total record against Linux, and not simply in the narrow categories it chooses to target, we’d see the balance weigh heavily in Linux’ favor.
How do you approach the challenge of community development? How does the emergence of open mobile development impact this?
Asay: Community development is difficult, but made infinitely more so if one’s code, development and business practices are also closed. As Apple has shown, however, community (at least in terms of a vibrant developer ecosystem that contributes around Apple products, rather than to them), and an exceptional product covers a multitude of proprietary approaches.
So, I don’t think Canonical (or anyone) can afford to say, “We’re open. Come on over and develop this clunky wreck we’ve started for you.” The foundation of any great community is great software. Canonical has a great community in large part because we’re committed to great software and so the innovators within the Linux community tend to congregate around the Ubuntu desktop. They then want to see their Ubuntu experience bleed into mobile, servers and cloud.
Mobile, far from challenging community development, particularly for Linux, enhances it. Mobile is ripe for open-source development because of the immense potential pool of talent from it draws: every developer has a phone and many will have the aptitude to do something with that phone’s software, particularly as mobile devices increasingly use a general purpose operating system, and not necessarily an “embedded OS.”
Sure, there’s the fear of fragmentation as the Linux Community disperses into competing efforts. But the reality is Linux has always been like that, and the kernel has thrived as a result as the different groups borrow from each other’s ideas. Mobile is not going to converge on just one or two platforms owned by Microsoft and Apple, as Accel partner Richard Wong asserts.
That’s good for mobile development.
What are the remaining hurdles for Linux in the enterprise? Are they technical or business challenges?
Asay: There are technical challenges, but after spending the last four weeks with Ubuntu Linux, I think the primary problem is simply human nature. People are used to their Windows or Macs machines. Most don’t necessarily have a strong preference for their OS. It’s just there. They care about the applications. Which ones? Facebook. Email. IM. Music. Movies.
Guess what? Only one of those is unavailable on Linux (iTunes, if that’s the preference, though there are other good alternatives).
Most people don’t know this. Most people don’t care to know this. They’re going to use whatever is put in front of them at work. Individuals don’t use SAP or Outlook or other enterprise software because they necessarily want to. It’s just what shows up on their machines when they start at a new company. They find their way to Facebook.com and Gmail.comwithout IT’s help or intervention.
However, I don’t think this is really where we’re going to see Linux adoption. Rather, I think the real opportunity is not in replacing an existing experience, like for like, but rather in creating new experiences for them, be it netbooks, instant-on offerings, mobile, etc. Most people are going to discover Linux by accident when they buy their TiVo, Kindle, etc. They won’t necessarily know that it’s Linux, and that’s just fine.
Like the Mac, Linux will find its enterprise momentum through the consumers who carry it into the company from their homes.
Canonical and the Ubuntu community have done a lot to change the perception of Linux simply being an server OS. How does the company sustain that momentum and continue to push the technology envelope? What’s required?
Asay: A passion and eye for design. We have both. We’ve made the Linux desktop experience so easy that even I can use it. We’re going to do that on the traditional desktop, but we’re also going to continue to push Ubuntu into a variety of exciting form factors. Our community and our business partners haven’t allowed us to rest on our laurels, and I don’t expect them to start doing so.
This is what has animated our push into the cloud, where Ubuntu is already the dominant operating system, and by a wide margin. Not surprisingly (at least, to us), it has been the Ubuntu desktop experience that has made us so appealing on the server and in the cloud. Linux innovators use Ubuntu and have wanted that same tight experience for their servers. We’re the fastest growing server OS in large part due to the enthusiasm of our community.
OSBC returns for the seventh year in a row (wow!) this week. How have the conference sessions changed since those early days? What can we expect from the event this year?
Asay: I hadn’t realized we had been staging it for so long until you said that. “Wow” is right. It started out as: “This open source thing is interesting but how are we possibly going to fund its future?.” Then, it morphed into being about sharing strategies to fuel commercial open-source growth. Today, it is an excellent place to learn how to make open source work for your business, whether you’re Delta Air Lines, Facebook or Alfresco.
A significant portion of our program this year addresses what open source means for a Web-centric world. So, Facebook is keynoting but we’re not just talking about so-called “Web 2.0” companies. We also have a range of Global 2000 enterprises like Virgin talking about how they’ve implemented open source, whether and how this saves them money or boosts productivity, and more.
I also really like how our legal track has matured, which reflects the maturing of the industry’s views on open source. The first OSBC dealt extensively with the legal risks of open source, but this one focuses on more practical issues like how to conduct due diligence when acquiring a company with open-source assets, or how to avoid patent pitfalls set by proprietary software. It’s nice to see people talking about the perils of proprietary software, seven years on, rather than the risks of open source. I think that’s the right perspective.
You’re helping to design the business track at LinuxCon. What do you think the business conversation at LinuxCon will focus on?
Asay: I’m fascinated by what Linux is doing to the mobile industry, and we’ll take a deep look at the business opportunities and challenges Linux is creating for a whole host of mobile operators. Generally speaking, Linux is lowering the bar to entering new markets for companies as diverse as Nokia, IBM and Red Hat. Why is this? And how do we take this wonderful thing we’ve all shared in creating and ensure it remains vibrant, free and revolutionary? We’re going to have a lot of fun.
Finally, what music are you listening to this season on the slopes?
Asay: I never listen to music while I ski; though I do sing quite often while I’m skiing, and I tend to crank music on the way up the canyon to the slopes (everything from Rage Against the Machine to Thom Yorke to Silversun Pickups to Morrissey to The Killers to…Haydn, when the mood is right). Recently I was rocking to Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” and Silversun Pickups’ “Panic Switch,” with a little Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” thrown in as I hit Little Cottonwood Canyon (I couldn’t help it, looking up at the beautiful slopes of Snowbird and Alta).
But when I’m on the slopes, I just love hearing nothing but the snow under my skis. It’s the same when I run: it’s my time to let my mind just go and not have it cluttered with noise (even if it’s noise I enjoy).