April 26, 2006

Desktop Linux Summit finale

Author: Joe Barr

SAN DIEGO -- The fourth annual Desktop Linux Summit 2006 concluded yesterday with its second full day of back-to-back, three-at-a-time sessions. I enjoyed all of the talks I attended except the last one, where Rob Enderle first recited Microsoft's version of the history of the world and then explained to the dwindling crowd why OEMs don't preload Linux.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Michael Evans, vice president of corporate development for Red Hat, kicked things off at 9:00. His presentation, titled "Changing the World with Alternative Desktop Approaches," began with a showing of the popular Red Hat video Truth Happens, which is based on the Mohandas Gandhi quote, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." It concludes with the message "You are here" and the beat of war drums. The first time I saw it, at the Red Hat Summit last year in New Orleans, the crowd erupted in applause at the end of the film. Today, the crowd was silent. I don't know whether that's because everyone here has already seen it, or if it's just a different crowd.

Evans then moved on to his main topic, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, by describing how Linux and open source has seeped into every area of the IT world. It's in the embedded, desktop, server, appliance, high performance, and telecom market segments; according to the figures Evans presented, in every segment save the desktop, Linux is not just there, it's there in impressive fashion. High-performance clusters are dominated by Linux, with 90-95% of the market. Linux also holds 90% of the appliance segment, 30 to 40% of Web servers, 60% of which are powered by Apache, 30 to 40% of embedded devices, and 10% of enterprise servers.

In addition to those established positions in all but the desktop segment, more and more students graduate every year from high school and college with Linux training. Those students take the Linux experience with them into the workforce, increasing the bubbling-up propagation of open source. In short, the future for Linux is bright in all spaces but one.

Evans then talked about OLPC, which is attempting to fulfill the vision of Nicholas Negroponte by providing $100 laptops to governments around the globe for educating their children. By the way, the original design called for a crank handle on the laptop which users would turn to generate the power needed for operation. In the current design, the crank is no longer required.

In addition to the technical challenges of producing a usable laptop at a low price point, there are social and political barriers to achieving the goal, Evans said, primarily because some firms are threatened by the project and are acting as obstructionists. During the Q&A session following the talk, Evans was asked whether Microsoft was one of the obstructionists. He said Microsoft is obviously one of those threatened by the project, and is spreading FUD about it, but he wouldn't categorize the company as being obstructionist.

Darwin and Linux

Next up was the most popular session of the two-day event, Geoffrey Moore's keynote entitled "Dealing with Darwin/Evolving Linux." Novell's Nat Friedman was there early, in the front row, for the show. The room was completely filled, with standing room only.

I'll cut to the chase. In cuter-than-usual business model buzz-speak, Moore opined that Linux should not even bother to challenge Microsoft on the desktop. He makes that judgment based on observations of the characteristics of the dominant vendors, such as Microsoft and McDonald's, in various markets, and the characteristics of Linux. He doesn't see a good fit there. Personally, I agree that Linux will never make a good Microsoft or a good McDonald's. But neither do I see that as a requirement.

In Moore's opinion, Linux should try to fight where Microsoft is not. He sees it as a "tornado" in the server market, but never more than a fringe player on the desktop. What he recommends is that Linux ignore the desktop and beat Microsoft to the next computing phenomena, which he called "social computing" rather than "personal computing."

Although his message may not have been music to the ears of many of the attendees, they enjoyed his good humor, quick wit, and engaging style. One example which drew applause came in the Q&A after the talk, when an attendee asked him what he thought about the patent situation. He put it very simply: "The patent issue is close to disease."

Moore signed his book Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution for attendees immediately following his presentation.

Everything in the cloud

Another warning cloud appeared after lunch. Michael Robertson, founder and ex-CEO of Linspire, has founded a new company called Ajax13, which has a product called ajaxOS. He echoed Moore's opinion that it is a mistake to challenge Microsoft on its home turf, the desktop. With ajaxOS, he intends to hit the company where it's not, and that's in the cloud.

The cloud, he explained, is an icon for the Internet. AjaxOS will eventually offer applications and data storage in the cloud. The only thing users will need is a browser. The platform the browser runs on won't matter. Today ajaxOS works only on the Firefox browser, but that is just for the short term. Robertson says all the major browsers will be supported eventually.

Robertson demonstrated a word processor and an Excel spreadsheet viewer in showing off the potential power of ajaxOS, and recommended everyone visit the ajaxLaunch Web site to track the company's progress.

Why is this not like a PC? Because the documents are kept "in the cloud," not on individuals' desktops. You can read a Microsoft Word document from elsewhere, but if you edit or update it, the new version will be available only from ajaxOS, which plans to offer free applications but charge for data storage.

History according to Enderle

After Robertson, it was Rob Enderle's turn. When Enderle started his presentation on "Why the Hardware OEMs Won't Do Desktop Linux," the crowd had already begun to leave the show. The first half of his talk was a rehashing of the Windows versus OS/2 wars from the Microsoft point of view. Everything was IBM's fault.

Enderle said nothing about the documented evidence of Microsoft's misdeeds and illegal behavior, though it is all a matter of public record. I found myself silently mouthing the words "you're lying" several times during his talk. According to Enderle, for example, Microsoft didn't withhold the license for IBM to preload Windows 95 until 15 minutes prior to product launch. IBM had the license all along, he says.

When he moved to his list of reasons why OEMs don't preload Linux, he criticized at length overly aggressive advocates among both the Linux and Apple user camps. Exactly how that could influence an OEM one way or the other, he didn't explain.

He had time for just a couple of questions after finishing his spiel. I asked him what happened to his list of reasons when every tier-one OEM sells preloaded Linux elsewhere around the globe, other than North America. Do they just vaporize? He says, no, they are still there, but sometimes OEMs have to listen to customer demand. Except here in North America, I guess.

I am not sure he realized that by acknowledging that all the tier-one OEMs sell preloaded desktop Linux systems in places like Germany, China, India, Thailand, and elsewhere outside of North America, in spite of all that bad advocacy and the rest of the items on his list, he was admitting that his thesis is just wrong.

One of the items on his list, by the way, doesn't seem to apply outside of North America, and that is the marketing money that Microsoft pays OEMs for preloading Windows. In my opinion, that item -- which is illegal when done in maintenance of a monopoly -- is the largest impediment to OEMs preloading Linux or any other operating system.

Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony commented during the Q&A following Enderle's talk that he agreed with 90% of what Enderle said. His only quibble was that he thought Linux could do the same things for OEMs that Microsoft does. That's when it really hit me -- these guys really don't get it. To them, free software and open source is simply another business commodity. They don't value the ethics of the community nor respect its raison d'ĂȘtre. The only problem they see with the Microsoft monopoly business model is that it is Microsoft that has the lock-in, not them.

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