February 5, 2001

Do we still need big, Linux-specific trade shows?

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin Miller -
After LinuxWorld in New York last week, I am wondering if big-time Linux shows are still needed. Wouldn't companies interested in promoting Linux products and services (including NewsForge owner VA Linux) be better off spending their time and money on more general computer and Internet shows than at events devoted strictly to Linux?Although representatives of IDG, the company behind LinuxWorld, kept telling me the show drew "over 20,000 people," attendance felt thinner than that to me. There wasn't the same "hubbub" feel I got from LinuxWorld in San Jose last summer or last winter's one in New York. This show had more and slicker corporate displays, and more people than ever in corporate uniform shirts manning and womanning those displays, but there was less excitement in the air than I felt at previous shows.

I was not the only one who felt this way. A young Gnome booth person said, "It seems like we're seeing mostly people wearing 'exhibitor' badges come to our booth, not so many who are just here to see the show."

At the same time, there is growing interest in Linux among "mainstream" computer users. I went to a small, regional computer trade show in Tampa, Florida, a few months ago, and the most popular booth in the place was a tiny thing put together by a local Linux Users Group. Their booth was tiny, lacked professional signage, and generally looked like it was put together in a few hours by a group of volunteer hackers -- which it was. All it offered was some people (not dressed in corporate garb) who could answer questions about Linux, and some giveaway install CDs donated by several distro publishers. But that was all it took, at a small-time local computer show, to draw an enthusiastic crowd eager to learn more about Linux.

The show's promoter has invited the LUG back to his next show, and has asked them if they could contact any of the Linux companies that might want to have paid displays. I think at least one or two of them should have small presences there. (I know this is where I would be putting my efforts if I was a Linux company marketing person.)

I can understand why VA, Red Hat, and other Linux companies need to have major presences at Linux-specific shows; they need to "show the flag" to "the community." IBM, Dell, Compaq, and other companies just moving into Linux surely feel they must do the same. But I don't think "the community" is overly impressed with big displays and banners. I think "the community" would be just as impressed with small, humble lounge areas where they could meet casually with the vendors' engineers and programmers, and "the community" would just as soon spend its time in tech sessions as wandering around a trade show floor dominated by sales and marketing people.

There are plenty of computer industry trade shows with bigger attendance than any Linux show, where hoopla is well-received. Last year at Internet World, Red Hat had a comparatively small, rather hidden booth -- and it was jammed with people begging for demo CDs. This was fine Linux evangelism. There are ISPcons and many other expos and conferences attended by potential Linux hardware and software users, all of which could benefit from increased Linux presences -- and from which Linux companies could benefit by attending.

Perhaps it's time to scale the Linux-specific shows back a bit; to turn more of them into developers' conferences and LUGfest-style meetings, and to send the giant corporate displays with "Linux" in 10-foot letters on them to other shows where Linux is still new and exciting -- or at least isn't being featured in every single booth space.

The funny thing is, I don't believe the lack of need for giant "Linux only" trade shows means Linux is a failure. Rather, it's an indication of Linux success. Linux is no longer an "upstart" or "alternative" operating system, but part of the mainstream, and those who are selling Linux products and services should not be afraid to go forth into the mainstream computing world, with their heads high, to compete against the rest of the world head-to-head, instead of confining themselves to a Linux ghetto inhabited primarily by people who already believe in the cause.

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