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Mark Shuttleworth's evolving Ubuntu desktop war

Mark Shuttleworth may be sitting on a massive market opportunity, all of which is predicated on free desktop bits.

Mark Shuttleworth and Matt Asay Skiing Las Lenas Matt Asay

I've been very fortunate to get to spend some time with Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, during my trip to Argentina. Mark and I spent the day skiing in Las Lenas, with some soft snow by the middle of the day and a lot of great conversation throughout the day.

One question we discussed at length: what is Mark's ambition for Ubuntu?

In trying to get at the answer to this question, InternetNews today asks: why doesn't Canonical work with SAP and Oracle to get them to support Ubuntu? But this sort of question doesn't get anywhere near Mark's ambition for Ubuntu. It doesn't anticipate the intersection of the web and the desktop.

The more I talk with Mark, the more I think he's a very, very smart person. He recognizes that Ubuntu needs to be more appealing on the desktop than the Mac to generate user adoption, but that's not really where his attention is focused, so far as I can tell. He's thinking bigger than desktop bits.

He's thinking of cloud-plus-desktop bits. And this, my friends, is why Mark may end up winning the "desktop" war.

Many, including I, have been quick to dismiss Microsoft as an also-ran on the web. To date it has been. Mark, however, along with Mary Jo Foley and other smart people, believes that the cloud becomes even more powerful when rendered through desktop applications. No one has the strength on the desktop that Microsoft has, making its increasing array of servers much more ominous (if you compete with them).

Indeed, the more one looks at Google and other "cloud" companies the more it's clear that they're spending an increasing amount of time on the desktop (Google Gears, Google Toolbar, etc.).

There's much one can do in the browser. But there's conceivably much more that one could do with a connection between the desktop and the cloud.

Just look at Apple, with a market cap that has surpassed Google's and a host of network services like iTunes that extend the Apple brand beyond its beautiful desktop.

Now start to think about what Ubuntu could do with a firm position on the desktop, or what Google could do if it wanted to "backfill" its desktop gap with Ubuntu (or its own homegrown version of Linux). Would you buy a Google Desktop/operating system? Of course you would. You'd be thinking of the Google applications while getting the benefit of a Google home base in the desktop bits, including the operating system.

So, on one hand you have the Canonical that is determined to create a better desktop experience, while simultaneously charging hard into the enterprise server market. Marry that to the possibility of Ubuntu delivered with exceptional network services and you not only discover a way for Ubuntu to be much bigger than a Linux distribution, but you also figure out a way for it to make a heck of a lot of money.

Suddenly creating a third leading Linux distribution doesn't seem so crazy. It's only crazy if Mark were content to stymie his imagination by replicating what Novell and Red Hat have already done well. He's not. He's thinking bigger. There's risk in thinking big, but there's also a potentially huge reward.