Header Ads

How Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space and launched a software revolution

How Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space and launched a software revolution

In an inside look at the Ubuntu founder and space pioneer, TechRepublic shows what Mark Shuttleworth has learned about innovation, cybersecurity, the future of tech, and planet Earth.
Image: NASA
This article was originally published on TechRepublic.
I meet Mark Shuttleworth in the café of a cinema in the center of London, which is fitting, because he's about as close to a movie star as the technology world gets.
Shuttleworth is perhaps best known as the "afronaut." In 2002, at 28, he became the first African in space--and the second-ever space tourist--after spending millions to fly to the International Space Station as a member of the crew of Soyuz mission TM-34.
But before that, in 1996, he had already founded digital certificate company Thawte, while studying finance and IT at the University of Cape Town, just as the internet age was gaining momentum. Thawte was one of the first companies working on securing internet transactions, and just three years later it was acquired by Verisign for $575 million, making the young Shuttleworth wealthy enough to pay for his trip to space, and much more.
When we meet he's straight off the plane from New York--he managed to fit in a bit of coding on the flight. But, he's happy to jump straight into the conversation, and for someone who lists public speaking as one of his dislikes--likes include weightlessness, broadband, Iain M Banks, skinny-dipping, fancy dress, and "flashes of insight"--he's got a nice turn of phrase, at one point describing the work of software developers as "revolutionary magic."
It's clear he sees technology as remaking the world, and while many technology execs try to play down that impact or even dodge their responsibility for those changes, Shuttleworth seems fascinated and energized by it.
"What I'm really interested in is how society changes because technology changes. We see changes in society like democracy, and we think they're somehow intrinsic. They're not--they're a function of technology. What is possible defines what we expect, and what is possible changes because technology changes.
"It's technology which changes what's possible in society, so if you want to change society, think carefully about technology," he says.
"We're in an age where the status quo gets turned over every couple of years and who's turning it over? Developers are turning it over. It's developers who are able to very quickly implement new ideas that are challenging established industries or established business models or established technological platforms," he says.
So what about that trip to space? Shuttleworth spent a year in training for the flight, eight months of that in Star City, Russia before rocketing off to the ISS.
"For me that wasn't just about the flight, it was about the training, about the sense of community there. Star City is a very close-knit, small community and an outpost of both historical and futuristic space, so it was fascinating to be there, and fascinating to make friends with people who have made that their career to be right in the thick of that. To launch from the same launchpad that kicked off Sputnik and Gagarin--that was pretty wild," he says.
05-shuttleworth-nasa.jpg
Shuttleworth (bottom right) poses with the crews of the Expedition Four and Soyuz 4 Taxi on the International Space Station.
Image: NASA
Would he go again? "We're still going to the same places, doing the same science. I think more people should go to space and if I take up one of those seats, then that's not more people going to space. But I think there will come a time when we are ready to go and push some boundaries, and I might want to be part of that," he concedes.
In 2000 he founded HBD (Here Be Dragons), an investment company, and created the Shuttleworth Foundation, which funds innovation projects. After running a campaign to promote coding, science, and mathematics in South African schools, he started work on a new grand challenge: creating an open source desktop operating system, called Ubuntu Linux.
While Linux was already used for servers in 2004, it was still very much a minority interest when Shuttleworth gathered a small team of developers from one of the established Linux projects, Debian, and set out to create an easy-to-use Linux desktop.
Shuttleworth did some of his research ahead of launching Ubuntu while on another adventure, this time to Antarctica.
"It wasn't cause and effect. I didn't think 'Gosh, I'd like to do free software, best I go to the South Pole'. I happened to be interested in going to Antarctica, so I had a couple of weeks on my hands to do some research," he says. "It's a long trip by boat."
The first release of Ubuntu arrived in October 2004 (Ubuntu is an African word meaning "humanity to others" or "I am what I am because of who we all are"). The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, now has 600 staff, with its headquarters in London.
From the start, the project was driven by an explicitly political declaration of intent, some of which is captured in the first tongue-in-cheek Ubuntu "bug" reported by Shuttleworth that year. The tiny startup wanted to take on tech giant Microsoft and its flagship product, Windows.
"Microsoft has a majority market share in the new desktop PC marketplace. This is a bug which Ubuntu and other projects are meant to fix," he wrote.
The availability of free open source software had huge potential benefits, Shuttleworth argued, by allowing users to share their collective experience to improve the software as it developed--and to give access to essential software to those who couldn't otherwise afford it.
"Non-free software leaves users at the mercy of the software owner, and concentrates control over the technology which powers our society into the hands of a few. Additionally, proprietary software stifles innovation, maintains artificial scarcities, and enables malicious anti-features such as DRM, surveillance, and other monopolistic practices. This bug is widely evident in the PC industry," he wrote.
And the fix? "A majority of the PCs for sale should include only free software," it concluded.
It's a pretty grand statement for a startup to make.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.