A Brief History of Ubuntu
Born in April 2004 and at just under four years old at the time of this writing, a history of Ubuntu may seem premature. However, the last four years have been full ones for Ubuntu. With its explosive growth, it is difficult even for those involved most closely with the project to track and record some of the high points. Importantly, there are some key figures whose own history must be given to fully understand Ubuntu. This brief summary tries to quickly give you the high points of Ubuntu’s history to date and the necessary background knowledge to understand where Ubuntu comes from.
No history of Ubuntu can call itself complete without a history of Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth is, undeniably, the most visible and important person in Ubuntu. More important from the point of view of history, Shuttleworth is also the originator and initiator of the project—he made the snowball that would eventually roll on and grow to become the Ubuntu project.
Shuttleworth was born in 1973 in Welkom, Free State in South Africa. He attended Diocesan College and obtained a business science degree in finance and information systems at the University of Cape Town. During this period, he was an avid computer hobbyist and became involved with the free and open source software community. He was at least marginally involved in both the Apache project and the Debian project and was the first person to upload the Apache Web server, perhaps the single most important piece of server software on GNU/Linux platforms, into the Debian project’s archives.
Seeing an opportunity in the early days of the Web, Shuttleworth founded a certificate authority and Internet security company called Thawte in his garage. Over the course of several years, he built Thawte into the second largest certificate authority on the Internet, trailing only the security behemoth VeriSign. Throughout this period, Thawte’s products and services were built and served almost entirely from free and open source software. In December 1999, Shuttleworth sold Thawte to VeriSign for an undisclosed amount that reached into the hundreds of millions in U.S. dollars.
With his fortune made at a young age, Shuttleworth might have enjoyed a life of leisure—and probably considered it. Instead, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel. After paying approximately U.S. $20 million to the Russian space program and devoting nearly a year to preparation, including learning Russian and spending seven months training in Star City, Russia, Shuttleworth realized his dream as a civilian cosmonaut aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission. On this mission, Shuttleworth spent two days on the Soyuz rocket and eight days on the International Space Station, where he participated in experiments related to AIDS and genome research. In early May 2002, Shuttleworth returned to Earth.
In addition to space exploration and a less-impressive jaunt to Antarctica, Shuttleworth played an active role as both a philanthropist and a venture capitalist. In 2001, Shuttleworth founded The Shuttleworth Foundation (TSF)—a nonprofit organization based in South Africa. The foundation was chartered to fund, develop, and drive social innovation in the field of education. Of course, the means by which TSF attempts to achieve these goals frequently involves free software. Through these projects, the organization has been one of the most visible proponents of free and open source software in South Africa and even the world. In the venture capital area, Shuttleworth worked to foster research, development, and entrepreneurship in South Africa with strategic injections of cash into start-ups through a new venture capital firm called HBD, an acronym standing for “Here Be Dragons.” During this period, Shuttleworth was busy brainstorming his next big project—the project that would eventually become Ubuntu.
There has been no lack of projects attempting to wrap GNU, Linux, and other pieces of free and open source software into a neat, workable, and user-friendly package. Mark Shuttleworth, like many other people, believed that the philosophical and pragmatic benefits offered by free software put it on a course for widespread success. That said, none of the offerings were particularly impressive. Something was missing from all of them. Shuttleworth saw this as an opportunity. If someone could build the great free software distribution that helped push GNU/Linux into the mainstream, he would come to occupy a position of strategic importance.
Shuttleworth, like many other technically inclined people, was a huge fan of the Debian project (discussed in depth later in this chapter). However, many things about Debian did not fit with Shuttleworth’s vision of an ideal OS. For a period of time, Shuttleworth considered the possibility of running for Debian project leader as a means of reforming the Debian project from within. With time, though, it became clear that the best way to bring GNU/Linux to the mainstream would not be from within the Debian project—which in many situations had very good reasons for being the way it was. Instead, Shuttleworth would create a new project that worked in symbiosis with Debian to build a new, better GNU/Linux system.
To kick off this project, Shuttleworth invited a dozen or so free and open source software developers he knew and respected to his flat in London in April 2004. It was in this meeting (alluded to in the first paragraphs of this introduction) that the groundwork for the Ubuntu project was laid. By that point, many of those involved were excited about the possibility of the project. During this meeting, the members of the team—which would in time grow into the core Ubuntu team—brainstormed a large list of the things that they would want to see in their ideal OS. The list is now a familiar list of features to most Ubuntu users. Many of these traits are covered in more depth later in this chapter. The group wanted
- Predictable and frequent release cycles
- A strong focus on localization and accessibility
- A strong focus on ease of use and user-friendliness on the desktop
- A strong focus on Python as the single programming language through which the entire system could be built and expanded
- A community-driven approach that worked with existing free software projects and a method by which the groups could give back as they went along—not just at the time of release
- A new set of tools designed around the process of building distributions that allowed developers to work within an ecosystem of different projects and that allowed users to give back in whatever way they could
There was consensus among the group that actions speak louder than words, so there were no public announcements or press releases. Instead, the group set a deadline for itself—six short months in the future. Shuttleworth agreed to finance the work and pay the developers full-time salaries to work on the project. After six months, they would both announce their project and reveal the first product of their work. They made a list of goals they wanted to achieve by the deadline, and the individuals present took on tasks. Collectively, they called themselves the Warthogs.
What Does Ubuntu Mean?
At this point, the Warthogs had a great team, a set of goals, and a decent idea of how to achieve most of them. The team did not, on the other hand, have a name for the project. Shuttleworth argued strongly that they should call the project Ubuntu.
Ubuntu is a concept and a term from several South African languages, including Zulu and Xhosa. It refers to a South African ideology or ethic that, while difficult to express in English, might roughly be translated as “humanity toward others,” or “I am because we are.” Others have described ubuntu as “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” The famous South African human rights champion Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained ubuntu in this way:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Ubuntu played an important role as a founding principle in post-apartheid South Africa and remains a concept familiar to most South Africans today.
Shuttleworth liked the term Ubuntu as a name for the new project for several reasons. First, it is a South African concept. While the majority of the people who work on Ubuntu are not from South Africa, the roots of the project are, and Shuttleworth wanted to choose a name that represented this. Second, the project emphasizes the definition of individuality in terms of relationships with others and provides a profound type of community and sharing—exactly the attitudes of sharing, community, and collaboration that are at the core of free software. The term represented the side of free software that the team wanted to share with the world. Third, the idea of personal relationships built on mutual respect and connections describes the fundamental ground rules for the highly functional community that the Ubuntu team wanted to build. Ubuntu was a term that encapsulated where the project came from, where the project was going, and how the project planned to get there. The name was perfect. It stuck.
In order to pay developers to work on Ubuntu full-time, Shuttleworth needed a company to employ them. He wanted to pick some of the best people for the jobs from within the global free and open source communities. These communities, inconveniently for Shuttleworth, know no national and geographic boundaries. Rather than move everyone to a single locale and office, Shuttleworth made the decision to employ these developers through a virtual company. While this had obvious drawbacks in the form of high-latency and low-bandwidth connections, different time zones, and much more, it also introduced some major benefits in the particular context of the project. On one hand, the distributed nature of employees meant that the new company could hire individuals without requiring them to pack up their lives and move to a new country. More important, it meant that everyone in the company was dependent on IRC, mailing lists, and online communication mechanisms to do their work. This unintentionally and automatically solved the water-cooler problem that plagued many other corporately funded free software projects—namely, that developers would casually speak about their work in person and cut the community and anyone else who didn’t work in the office out of the conversation completely. For the first year, the closest thing that Canonical had to an office was Shuttleworth’s flat in London. While the company has grown and now has several offices around the world, it remains distributed and a large number of the engineers work from home. The group remains highly dependent on Internet collaboration.
With time, the company was named Canonical. The name was a nod to the project’s optimistic goals of becoming the canonical place for services and support for free and open source software and for Ubuntu in particular. Canonical, of course, refers to something that is accepted as authoritative. It is a common word in the computer programmer lexicon. It’s important to note that being canonical is like being standard; it is not coercive. Unlike holding a monopoly, becoming the canonical location for something implies a similar sort of success—but never one that cannot be undone, and never one that is exclusive. Other companies will support Ubuntu and build operating systems based on it, but as long as Canonical is doing a good job, its role will remain central.