The Desktop Linux Consortium was formed earlier this year with the three-part goal of educating, advocating, and connecting Linux desktop software. Its first conference was a big step toward the third goal, according to DLC Chairman Jeremy White. Attendees included a mix of IT staffers, corporate management, ISVs, and press. Held at Boston University's Corporate Education Center in remote Tyngsborough, Mass., it featured two rooms of breakout seminars plus a large auditorium for general sessions. Most trade shows have an exposition floor featuring relevant products; this conference featured half a dozen vendors showing their wares on tables in the hallway outside the auditorium.
DLC Executive Director Bruce Perens began the day's presentations by noting that Linux is not developed by vendors as much as by its users. He said that today Linux provides all the software necessary for 80% of workers to do their jobs. He projected Linux would run on 30% of enterprise desktops by 2006.
Perens was the first of several speakers to say that, as the business of making a Linux distribution is only marginally economically viable, Linux vendors should be viewed as service providers, not software developers. To that end, he proposed a user-supported enterprise distro, where companies would pay for the software engineering rather than per seat. Perens suggested a so-called User Linux should be in the context of the Debian system except for software that Debian would not accept, such a non-open source 3D drivers. Multiple independent vendors would support his distro, and current companies would add value by servicing particular industry sectors.
Perens also commented on some recent industry developments. He predicted IBM would buy Novell, or at least continue to be its financial sugar daddy, and noted that SCO has not been able to provide evidence to support any of it allegations against Linux vendors. He said software patents are the largest enemy of open source, and "they could stop us dead." After software patenting, he said digital rights management is the largest threat to open source.
Citing recent stories of governments favoring open source, Perens suggested large companies and governments specify in their purchasing policies a requirement for products to use file formats and interchangable protocols that other products can use, instead of requiring open source products.
The peak of inflated expectations
Ximian co-founder Nat Friedman spoke more on Linux desktop trends. He noted that today, on the Gartner hype cycle, Linux desktop is right at the "peak of inflated expectations." Realistically speaking, Google statistics show that 1% of user agents hitting the search site run under Linux.
Friedman talked about what kinds of desktops Linux is suitable for. Engineering worktations, he said, are an easy choice for Linux desktop deployment. Next easiest are workers who run captive business applications like point of sale and customer relationship management. The hardest are the desktops of general knowledge workers, because of the need to migrate custom applications. Barriers to desktop Linux are application availability and interoperability of file formats and protocols, as well as support costs, Friedman said.
Friedman said Linux desktop migration is happening outside of the US first. Other countries, he said, see Linux as the alternative to the American Microsoft. He said migration drivers are control and choice; strategic, emotional, and political reasons carry more weight than cost.
In response to an audience question, Friedman said Novell is analyzing whether to port Ximian's Evolution application to run on Windows as a step migration tool. He said his company is developing a policy management tool for Evolution and the entire Gnome desktop, to be released in 2004. He noted that Novell's strategy is that the client software should be free, but customers pay for resource management and server software.
After these general sessions the attendees split up to attend breakout sessions on three different tracks. Each of the three sessions lasted 30 or 45 minutes. Among them, Mark Westerman introduced Security-Enhanced Linux; Chris Lahey presented the GNOME desktop; and Jeremy White and Jim Curtin, CEOs of CodeWeavers and NeTraverse, talked about products for transitioning from Windows to Linux desktops. Other speakers included Sam Greenblatt of Computer Associates's Linux Technology Group, Jim McQuillan of the Linux Terminal Server Project, and Havoc Pennington of Freedesktop.org.
After lunch attendees gathered in the auditorium again to hear IBM's Sam Docknevich's perspective on Linux on the desktop. Docknevich said the Linux market shows a compound annual growth rate of 44%, with a projected 10% of new unit sales and a 7% installed base by 2006. He said 14,000 internal IBM users use Linux desktop today.
Usually, Docknevich said, the move to Linux is caused by a trigger event, such as the existing desktop OS reaching the end of its product lifecycle. Docknevich recommended organizations in that position perform a segmentation study to identify current hardware and data, then analyze the TCO and ROI and map existing applications to open source alternatives. He presented three technology approaches: thin client/portal (which he said is practical today thanks to high bandwidth), slim/hybrid (managed desktops), and the traditional fat/thick client.
After Docknevich's presentation it was time for the afternoon breakouts. One of the most interesting was by John Terpstra, CTO of PrimaStasys and former VP/Technology of Caldera, whose talk was titled "State-of-the art FLOSS: No roadblocks ahead." Given that Caldera was the progenitor of today's SCO, Terpstra should know whereof he speaks.
Terpstra denied the validity of the concept of intellectual property. He rebutted some common arguments against Linux: FLOSS does not destroy innovation, he said, since users are not forced to update. That forces businesses to focus on customer service, and makes technology a commodity. All products tend toward commoditization, which increases the need for innovation.
Terpstra sees two possible software market models. In one, a monopoly chooses its customers by setting price points that only some can afford. Technology is a tool to coerce updates, and the monopoly seeks government control of intellectual property. Monopolies are highly valued by investors, and work to balance profits against the cost of development, limiting innovation.
On the other hand are standardized commodity software markets, which use free market forces. With such software only distribution is economically driven. Echoing Perens's earlier remarks, Terpstra said service becomes key for these kinds of companies.
Other sessions were less challenging, tending toward advertisements for the presents' companies' products. Xandros Chairman Frederick Berenstein, for instance, said that to reach the mass market, a desktop product must be easy to install, must have a familiar look and feel, and offer the ability to use legacy documents, all of which, he showed, Xandros does. At the same time, he said people will migrate to Linux just because they hate Microsoft. Berenstein said Xandros Desktop 2.0 will be in stores in December, and hinted that an enterprise version of Xandros, slated for release in January, will include a Computer Associates antivirus tool.
Despite all the valuable information, the conference was not without glitches. Many of the sessions planned for the original three tracks failed to materialize as advertised, but the planners were able to substitute sessions of equal value. The organizers allowed too little time for lunch and no time for breaks between sessions, leading to confusion in the timing of afternoon breakout sessions. Attendees who wanted to attend presentations in different tracks found themselves coming in too early or too late.
There was also evidence of religious zealotry among the participants. One audience member attacked IBM's Docknevich for admitting he doesn't yet run desktop Linux himself. Others were nonplussed to see that the majority of slideware presentations were given in PowerPoint rather than OpenOffice.org Impress.
At the start of the conference Bruce Perens thanked the Consortium's Jill Ratkevic for coming up with the idea of a conference and doing all the groundwork to make it happen. The whole community owes Ratkevic a vote of thanks. Next year, who knows what the DLC Conference might blossom into?