Software developed by a company founded by South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth has been installed by Google, the world's most-used search engine. Despite such a prominent endorsement, Shuttleworth will not be making any money: the software is free to use.

Since selling his internet company to Verisign for US$575m in 2000, Shuttleworth has become a champion of open source, the free-to-use, free-to-alter software that challenges costly brand-name products.

Shuttleworth invested US$10m in his new venture, Canonical, which developed the Ubuntu operating system that Google has installed on its internal computers. Ubuntu's underlying code is open for anyone to modify to suit their needs.

News that Google is using Ubuntu first appeared on online technology news site, The Register. The website speculated that Google was using Ubuntu to develop an operating system which it would launch to the public as a free alternative to Microsoft's Windows software. Google is seen as one of a handful of companies with the muscle to challenge Microsoft's desktop dominance by offering open-source alternatives. Google has denied the speculation. "We utilise the Ubuntu technology for internal use, but have no plans to distribute it outside of the company," a spokeswoman said.

Whatever Google's reasons for installing Ubuntu, the work its developers do to adapt and improve the product will benefit Ubuntu, which comes with a word processor, database, e-mail, internet browser, spreadsheet and presentation programs.

"We are extremely proud to have Google as a client," said Canonical chief operating officer Jane Silber. Google's adoption of the software was significant in showing the rest of the world that Ubuntu was a viable desktop system for any company or government in any country, she said.

Ubuntu is emerging as a leading open-source application, and Shuttleworth is negotiating with computer manufacturers to start selling PCs with the system preinstalled. Locally he is talking to Mustek, which produces SA's best-selling Mecer computers, and with local manufacturers Pinnacle and Sahara.

Business Day

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