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April 13, 2017updated 27 Jul 2022 10:15am

Open Source Hippie to Software Standard: Ubuntu CEO signs off on a decade at Canonical

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth is set to return as CEO, with Jane Silber moving on to pastures new.

By Ellie Burns

Mark Shuttleworth, the creator of Ubuntu and part-time astronaut, is set to retake the reigns of Canonical with the exit of current CEO Jane Silber. Announced in a blog post by Silber entitled ‘A new vantage point’, the current CEO spoke of passing the baton as the company enters a new phase of accelerated growth.

The departure of Silber ends a 13-year stint at the company, with the CEO having joined the company as COO in 2004. Prior to the announcement of Shuttleworth returning as CEO, CBR had the chance to sit down with Silber, with the seasoned open source exec reflecting on her time with the firm behind Ubuntu.

“When I joined there was no Ubuntu yet, there wasn’t even the name. We started the classic startup, we focused on making the product and getting people to use it and it grew from there.

“It feels like it happened a couple of months ago and it was an entire lifetime ago both at the same time.”

Much has changed in the intervening years since Silber joined Canonical, with the open source landscape shifting dramatically.

READ MORE: Ubuntu Gnome returns: Canonical gives up on linux smartphone dream

“When I joined we would go and visit customers and companies and the first half hour or hour of every meeting was us explaining open source to them. Explaining why it wasn’t scary, explaining that it was a good thing and what the licenses meant. Not even talking about Ubuntu, but talking about open source in general.

“Now there is none of that, everyone knows what it is and it has become such a defacto default standard way of both developing and consuming software.”

Open source has certainly hit the mainstream with big names like Microsoft, who previously did all that they could to block the growth of open source (Steve Ballmer called Linux a cancer), now embracing the open model of development.

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However, this is a double-edged sword – Microsoft recently released SQL Server on Linux, upping the competition in the open source operating system space. However, for Silber, this wider acceptance of open source means a bigger market to sell to. Asked if competition from the likes of Microsoft, also a Ubuntu partner, is likely to change Canoncial’s strategy, Silber told CBR:

“Our approach is not going to change and it hasn’t changed over the years. It does impact general acceptance – again back in the early days open source was the wild haired hippie thing, it wasn’t corporate at all. Now it’s very corporate it’s very well accepted. The biggest services that you know now are all developed on open source, things like Uber, Instagram, Spotify, Netflix all of those run on Ubuntu, usually in a public cloud, sometimes in their own data centre.  It’s completely mainstream now so what it means for us is that our addressable market is mainstream.”

“By having that larger addressable market it’s a larger market we can sell to. We work now with companies who you would never expect to be using open source back in the day, folks like deutsche Telekom and NTT and AT&T are all building core services; telcos in general are converting a lot of their core services to Linux and Ubuntu-based cloud infrastructure.”

Although Canonical may be accepting of more competition in the market, seeing it as an opportunity to sell to more people, it remains to be seen if the wider market will positively impact the bottom line. Open source, by its very nature, is a hard market to make money from with Red Hat standing alone in its huge financial success in the market. However, according to Silber, growth and business is good at Canonical – a fact which may raise some eyebrows following reports that the company is set to axe more than 80 workers.

“We are happy with where we are, we have good growth and are growing enterprise customers as well as telco customers. We have a lot of growth in that cloud infrastructure area and increasingly, in the IoT space with a lot of device manufacturers adopting Ubuntu as their operating system for edge devices.”

The IoT space may be the ‘new phase of accelerated growth’ which Silber referred to in her departure letter, a targeted segment which has become an increasingly important focus as the company tries to profit from open source. The next few years, Silber says, will be key for the company in this space:

“We continue to be focused on IoT and hybrid cloud spaces and establishing Ubuntu as the defacto standard there. It is still very early days for IoT , there is a lot of buzz around it and everything is labelled IoT but I think it comes into its own in the next three to five years and that becomes an increasingly important space for us in that timeframe.”

However when going up against hugely profitable Red Hat, the company is looking to offer something unique on the operations side.

“One of the things that we relentlessly focus on is operations and operations at scale and that’s part of how we have developed our market share in cloud computing. We are very focused on cutting down operations cost, so not just an operating system but an operations system – providing the horsepower to enable people to build and scale their infrastructure in an automated and consistent manner,” Silber told CBR.

READ MORE: Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical founder: Dot-com bubble collapse set to hit Openstack as the Big Tent comes falling down

“A rising awareness is the fact that even if your software is becoming more and more free in terms of cost and the software licensing costs are going down, the cost of operating all that stuff is going up. We are trying to tackle both of those at the same time. I think that’s a unique thing about us and a differentiator from some of our competitors.”

The future for Canonical outlined by Silber may very well change under Shuttleworth’s leadership, although Silber will remain CEO for the next three months and have a seat on the company’s Board of Directors. Although she remained tight-lipped over a possible future IPO, Silber did omit that while it was “not an immediate plan, it’s a possibility.”

Her departure as CEO has, she assured in her departure letter, was not a sudden decision, which indicates that the focus on operations, hybrid and IoT under her tenure as CEO will remain in the long-run under Shuttleworth too.

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