August 15, 2002

Bob Young's traveling tech circus

-By Grant Gross -

Red Hat founder Bob Young has started his new venture, a series of "tech circuses" founded on the very Open Source idea that tech enthusiasts should be able to explore the guts of the technologies they use and have fun doing it.
Think of the Lulu Tech Circus as an anti-trade show type of show, Young says, designed for attendees, not vendors who are "trying to reach into my back pocket and take money out."

Young says the circuses won't focus solely on Open Source software, but they do build on an Open Source world view. "I define Open Source much more broadly than the Open Source community does," says Young, still serving on the Red Hat board after serving as past chairman and CEO. "I define Open Source as empowering the user to understand what's going on inside the technology he's using. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on digital technologies ... it's going to be essential that the individuals in our society have a right to audit what those technologies consist of."

The problem with building a digital society based on proprietary rules is that citizens can't appeal the rules because they don't know exactly what those rules are, Young says. "It's a little bit like getting thrown into jail, and no one has to tell you what you got thrown in jail for," he says.

"I do not actually have an Open Source [software] bias in the circus," Young adds. "I simply have an education bias and an empowering-of-the-user bias. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Open Source empowers the user a great deal more than proprietary technology."

The Lulu Tech Circuses, planned for several North American cities over the next year, may not actually have three wooden rings, but they will have a circus atmosphere. Attendees will be able to wander between several sections, with themes like Linux and Open Source, robotics, ham radio and digital media. They will see demonstrations in each topic "ring," attend in-depth sessions on topics such as how to build a robot, and even trade software or gadgets at a huge swap meet.

Expect sessions such as "how to use your PDA in ways the manufacturer didn't intend," or "how encryption works."

The assumption of the Lulu Tech Circus is that fans of technology aren't interested in only one narrow topic, and the idea, Young says, is to gather together all kinds of tech enthusiasts from different disciplines to create a "marketplace of ideas." Young hopes the circuses can be a place where Linux hackers hang out with robot builders and the two can hatch a plan for for a better kind of robot. The circuses may be like an old-time Linux gathering combined with a consumer gaming show, with maybe a touch of Burning Man (sans nudity) mixed in. Young's goal is to host a gathering of the tech tribes.

"I've yet to meet a technology user who was uni-dimensional," he says. "No one is just a Windows user, and no one is just a database user, and no one is just a game player. Suddenly, it becomes the intersection of the rings that becomes a huge value to the attendee."

Young, who calls himself a former "serial entrepreneur," says the idea for the circuses began brewing a year ago, when several journalists asked him about the significance of Linux at its 10th birthday. Many had questions about Open Source business plans and asked why several Open Source companies were struggling.

Young compared Linux at 10 with the "parallel new technology model" of the PC industry in 1984, when it was 10 years old and companies like Dell and Compaq weren't founded yet.

"Compared to the PC industry after 10 years, the fact that some of the early Linux players are no longer around should not be a surprise," Young says. "What you have to look at is the fundamentals. Is this a movement that materially benefits the consumers of technology? That's exactly what drove the PC -- it was of so much more value to the consumer of technology than the previous model. That's exactly where Linux is -- Open Source is simply of greater value to the consumer than proprietary software, where the vendor controls the technology."

After explaining the value of Open Source -- that it gives customers a choice of what to do with their code -- to a series of journalists, Young decided he again needed to put his money where his mouth is. "At the end of of the day, you look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'do you really believe this, or this this so much spin?'" he says. "The problem was I believed it. I looked in the mirror and said, 'this is actually right -- the Open Source thing at the early stages of its adoption, and the Dells and the Compaqs have not even been formed yet.

"I'm going, 'hold on, if the Dells and the Compaqs haven't even been formed yet, why can't I start the Dell or the Compaq?'' he says. "That's really what Lulu is all about."

You might not think of Lulu Enterprises, which also includes newfangled e-publishing company Lulu Press based on the eBay model, as a traditional Open Source company, but if we follow Young's comparison to the PC industry, it might be similar to an ISV or PC training company, which created markets beyond the original PC manufacturers. "What Lulu is doing is providing some of the services in the Open Source space that are not currently available," he says.

If you're wondering, the name "Lulu" comes from a pet name Young had for his daughters. It's also Young's good fortune to have the slang meaning of "a remarkable person, object, or idea."

After the journalists' questions planted the seed of the idea, a pet peeve drove Young to pursue it. It might not be an accident that Young says he hated most trade shows just as LinuxWorld attendees complain that show has gotten too corporate. "The reason I hated most trade shows as an attendee was that they were designed to exploit the attendees," he says. "The trade show management put on a trade show in order to serve the needs of the exhibitors. There wasn't a single trade show manager on the planet who cared about the attendee. As far as the trade show manager was concerned, the attendee was so much cattle fodder for serving his real customer, the exhibitor."

Young says if the circuses attract enough attendees, he'll have no trouble attracting exhibitors. In fact, his organization is spending more time recruiting user groups than exhibitors, because Young plans for user groups to have front-and-center space at the circuses, not a corner in the back, like at most trade shows.

The beta circus [with publicity by former Red Hat PR maven Melissa London] is in Young's hometown Raleigh, N.C., September 27 to 29. A Boston gathering is planned for December 13 to 15, and a D.C. area one is slated for March 28 to 30. Shows are scheduled for Chicago, Toronto and Atlanta later in 2003, and Young plans for each show to become an annual event.

Obviously, Young sees a business model in all this. General admission will be $10 or $15. Organizers are using a state-fair admissions approach, where much of the show is available for the small entrance fee, and attendees pay extra for tickets to specialized workshops. That low admission price fits in with Young's general philosophy that informed users are good customers.

For Young, co-founder of the Center for the Public Domain, Lulu Tech Circus continues his philosophy that open systems and open dialogs are essential for a democratic society to function. "How do you go about educating people about this stuff?" he says. "Well, you could march on Washington, and there better people than I am who will do that, but what I love about free markets is the opportunity to solve the problem in the marketplace."


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