One Linux over all: Mark Shuttleworth’s ambitious post-PC plans for Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth is nothing if not ambitious. How may other tech execs have actually been to space?  Not counting Microsoft alum Charles Simonyi, that would be one: the aforementioned Shuttleworth.

Now Shuttleworth, who used tens of millions of his own dollars to fund Canonical and made it his ambition to entrench Ubuntu Linux on desktops and servers is now launching a full-on assault to put it on your smartphone, your tablet and the computers that run your favorite cloud services via OpenStack.

Taking on the giants

It’s a gutsy bet. He’s basically taking on Google’s Chrome Browser, ChromeOS and Android OS. And then there’s iOS(s aapl). Not a job for the faint of heart. In a recent interview with GigaOM,  Shuttleworth said a key Ubuntu advantage is that its basic code really does run everywhere from itty-bitty mobile devices to big iron. No Android-Chrome OS divide here.

“The core of Ubuntu that runs on the server is the same as on the phone and that’s a wonderful resonance,” Shuttleworth said. “We’ve done  pioneering work to put server Linux on ARM chips and the core of those ARM chips is the same for servers as it is for smartphones,”  Shuttleworth said.

Admittedly, it’s still early days for running ARM servers in a production environment — my colleague Stacey Higginbotham reported that Baidu is doing it — for storage — but few others are. But the need for energy-sipping servers is not going away. And ARM servers address that demand.

As more cloud services get delivered via smartphones and tablets, all that “resonance” could come in handy. But timing may be a problem. Android and Apple iOS, which dominate that smartphone and tablet market now, will be hard to dislodge. If you believe Google Chairman Eric Schmidt — a biased observer — Android Android’s growth rate is, is on track to hit 1 billion downloads within the next 6 to 9 months. And, to further complicate matters, Microsoft(s msft) seems willing to spend big to build its presence in smartphones and tablets as well. As much money as Shuttleworth has, Microsoft has more.

Seemingly undaunted, Shuttleworth says Ubuntu is getting serious looks from silicon providers, from carriers and from handset makers who are interested in offering it on their devices. He declined to provide names. It is true that Google’s acquisition of Motorola’s mobile assets still worries third-party handset makers who don’t relish the thought of competing with their OS provider, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed Android adoption.

Ubuntu shows strength in cloud

Ubuntu is already a big presence in the cloud by virtue of Amazon Web Services where it is the most popular operating environment on EC2 — at least as measured by the Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) that people create. “The number of AMIs running Ubuntu is 5 or 6 times as many as Windows or any other operating system,” said Stephen O’Grady, principal analyst with Redmonk. One caveat is that people create lots of AMIs that they may not actually use, cautioned The 451 Group analyst Carl Brooks.

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And Ubuntu came earlier than many other vendors to the OpenStack party. It’s got a leg up in the enterprise two years ago when  HP named it the lead host and guest OS in HP’s OpenStack cloud. That relationship continues to this day.

Shuttleworth also said Ubuntu’s OpenStack gets tons of interest from telcos and carriers that are rushing to create their own cloud services to better compete with AWS. One theme coming out of the OpenStack Summit last month was that these sleeping giants, many of which offer VMware vCloud Director options that price them out of the market, are finally waking up to the threat that AWS poses to them. And that is something Shuttleworth feels Ubuntu, with Canonical behind it,  can capitalize on.

“We are in a very good position when carriers want to look beyond standing up OpenStack to what the end-user experience is,” he said.

In his view, Ubuntu more than other Linux OpenStack flavors, offers simplicity and power — a claim that other OpenStack players would likely dispute. Linux rivals Red Hat, SUSE and are also all in the mix here. And Nebula’s selling point is its OpenStack controller that makes it easy to plug OpenStack into existing legacy environments. There will be a ton of competition among the OpenStack providers even as they all contend with CloudStack and Eucalyptus options.

Shuttleworth maintains Ubuntu’s advantage, however.

“We really are at the point where you can take a USB with Ubuntu, stick it on 1 to 300 servers and in a short period have a high-availability cloud — compute, storage, and network — up and running that provides a lot of value,” he said. “This is real and it’s helping people get over the conceptual hurdle of moving to cloud. It’s at the point where you can have ten people debating it for a week or you can just go and do it — the cost is low enough and the lessons are valuable enough to make it happen.”

But what about revenue?

There’s one not-so-small hitch here. As many good reviews as Ubuntu Linux has gotten, the revenue or profit picture is about as clear as mud. Canonical’s business model is that customers pay for support and maintenance on free software. But the privately held company won’t say how many people actually pay for any of that. And it doesn’t talk about how much money Shuttleworth has ponied up since founding the company in 2004. The question is whether Canonical (and Ubuntu) could stand on its own without his deep pockets. Face it, it’s hard to take a customer from free to non-free.

When it comes to questions about revenue or profitability, Canonical will only say that customers including PC, phone and tablet manufacturers and big companies that deploy Ubuntu at scale  use Canonical’s paid tools and services to support their server, cloud and client environments.

That may not be enough detail for enterprise buyers who want to know if the vendor they use today will be around next year or the year after. For a company that has such grand plans for a free operating system, Canonical needs to address these questions at some point.

Shuttleworth will be talking about his grand cloud vision at GigaOM’s Structure Europe in London in September, so here’s your chance to ask.