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Hardy Heron reflects Ubuntu Linux ambitions

The Hardy Heron version, due Thursday, is Canonical's best shot yet at making a business of Ubuntu Linux. But CEO Shuttleworth seems happy to keep on subsidizing it.

Correction 8 p.m. PT: I included the wrong duration for regular Ubuntu releases. It's 18 months.

Canonical plans to release Hardy Heron, its newest version of Ubuntu Linux on Thursday, and Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth isn't being shy and retiring about it.

"This is our most significant release ever," he said in an interview.

Ordinarily I avoid publishing such marketing superlatives, but Shuttleworth is right. Hardy Heron, also called version 8.04 for its April 2008 launch date, is Canonical's proof-in-the-pudding moment that will show whether the company can grow beyond its subsidized roots into a self-sustaining business. Ubuntu has a strong following among Linux enthusiasts, but it's Red Hat and Novell that still dominate the commercial Linux market.

The reason so much weight rests on the skinny legs of Hardy Heron is because it's only the second Linux product from the company to come with long-term support. The first LTS version of Ubuntu, Dapper Drake, arrived when the company was still comparatively immature and unknown.

Long-term support means the company releases bug fixes, security patches, and other updates for five years on the server version and three years on the desktop version, time frames more palatable to businesses than the 18-month life spans of other Ubuntu versions.

On the server, the new version has support for KVM virtualization built in and comes in a stripped-down version called JEOS (Just Enough Operating System) for software "appliances" that run on KVM or VMware. The company has been working on better hardware support--though it no longer supports Sun Microsystems' Sparc processors, Shuttleworth said. Also included are better integration with Windows' Active Directory for corporate users and a certified, downloadable version of Java software.

On the desktop, Hardy Heron now can be installed directly into the Windows file system so people can try it without having to reformat their hard drives. The software also deals better with online music and photo sites such as Flickr, he added. However, because of an upgrade timing disconnect, fans of the KDE user interface software will have to make do with only 18-month support for the older KDE 3.5 or an unsupported developer version based on the new KDE 4.0.

Still not profitable
Shuttleworth, who funded Ubuntu with wealth from his sale of an earlier start-up to VeriSign, cares about business success, but he's also willing to continue spending to help Canonical grow into new areas--such as the mobile version that's beginning in earnest with Hardy Heron.

"Ubuntu will require continuing investment from me and from others. We are on a trajectory that will make the company sustainable," Shuttleworth said. But he wouldn't say when he envisions profitability: "I'd rather not be on the hook...I keep finding additional areas to invest in."

What's a surprise to Shuttleworth, though, is that the desktop Linux is financially more significant than the version for servers.

"The desktop contributes more to Canonical's bottom line than the server," he said. The server business is still Canonical's primary focus for support revenue. But the company has been getting paid for desktop and consumer-electronics work, he said.

"On the desktop, we see strong demand for custom engineering and assurance programs as people look to Canonical to indemnify them against potential copyright or patent issues," Shuttleworth said.

Canonical also works on unbranded Linux for consumer-electronics companies, though Shuttleworth expects they'll eventually opt for something like Ubuntu. "The hardware vendors are leaping at the ability to do their own operating system. I believe over time they'll tire of the costs and risks of doing that," he said.

Regarding engineering work, he added that Canonical has a tight partnership with Intel, an "extensive on-site engineering relationship where we integrate support for latest platforms."