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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Space tourist promotes open source
By Gareth Mitchell
BBC Digital Planet

Mark Shuttleworth
Mark Shuttleworth was one of the first space tourists
On this week's edition of BBC technology programme Digital Planet South African space tourist and open source evangelist Mark Shuttleworth talks about the developing world's need for technology solutions.

As he walked across the campus of London's Imperial College, casually dressed in jeans and trainers, Mark Shuttleworth hardly stood out from the hordes of students making their way between lectures.

They were blissfully unaware that in their midst was a man who made a fortune in the dotcom explosion of the late 1990s, and unlike many less savvy entrepreneurs, held on to it. And that meant he could afford a nice holiday, so in 2002 he made headlines paying £14m ($20m) for a trip to the International Space Station.

Back on earth, through his philanthropic foundation, Shuttleworth has become a high profile advocate of open source software.

He's at Imperial College to record a video address on the subject to be shown to delegates at next week's Gov-Tech E-Government Conference in Pretoria, South Africa.

'Humanity'

The Shuttleworth Foundation is driving an open source software suite called Ubuntu - from the Zulu word meaning "humanity to others".

Based on the Linux operating system, Ubuntu provides a desktop environment that works as an alternative to Microsoft Windows. Unlike Windows or Mac OS, Ubuntu - being open source - is free.

The Linux platform continues to mature and to remove the differences in perceived functionality between free and proprietary software
Mark Shuttleworth

At Imperial College, after Shuttleworth had recorded his video address, I grabbed a few words with him for Digital Planet. Given that most PCs and Macs are shipped with an operating system installed, why bother with a relatively unknown OS like Ubuntu?

"That's actually a very western perspective that you buy a computer and it has Windows.

"That's certainly true in London but certainly isn't true in Jakarta, Manila or Beijing.

"In those countries, the cost of proprietary software like Windows and Office - or the Mac equivalents - could be as much as a year's salary for someone," said Mr Shuttleworth.

Many people in developing countries are forced to either miss out on computing or resort to pirated software.

Affordable computing

Linux-based free software, said Shuttleworth, brought affordable computing to even the poorest people.

He believes that Linux - and variants like Ubuntu - will become de facto platforms in many emerging economies.

"The Linux platform continues to mature and to remove the differences in perceived functionality between free and proprietary software.

"As it gets closer to the point where you can do everything you want on a computer with Linux, without having to worry about it, the percentage of users will increase substantially," said Mr Shuttleworth.

He sees real potential for Ubuntu in his native South Africa. Through its sister platform, Edubuntu, the Shuttleworth Foundation is pushing to bring open source software into South African schools and elsewhere on the continent.

He hopes that it can bring the same opportunities to today¿s young people that allowed him to make his fortune in the 1990s.

"I'm incredibly privileged today, specifically because Linux was around 10 years ago.

'Dreaming up'

"When I was dreaming up new businesses to start on the internet during the dotcom boom - or bubble - it was only because I had access to Linux that I could be self empowered.

"Despite being a kid in Cape Town, which is as far from the nexus of Silicon Valley as you can get, certainly in bandwidth terms, I was able to build something small but that could compete globally."

But Mark Shuttleworth isn't the only philanthropic entrepreneur focusing his efforts on bringing affordable computing to less privileged people around the world.

There are a number of Microsoft initiatives, and the One Laptop per Child scheme, the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, formerly of MIT's Media Lab, aimed at rolling out millions of $100 dollar laptops.

All those involved insist they are not in competition with each other. Their approaches and motivations vary. But the concerted push to bridge the digital divide, whether through philanthropy or enterprise, can only be a good thing.

You can hear the Mark Shuttleworth interview in full on this week's edition of Digital Planet with Gareth Mitchell.


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