March 8, 2006

Latte and Linux in Toronto

Author: Tina Gasperson

Linux users who live in Toronto now have a special place to gather, get online, and sip fancy coffee drinks. It's not Starbucks, it's the linuxcaffe.

In 2003, David Patrick was keeping an eye on his neighborhood corner store, just a few feet down the road from his home near the Christie subway station. "[It] was going to hell," Patrick says. "It was filthy and the owner showed up only long enough to sell single smokes to the local kids." He and his wife and nephew started dreaming about what a good location it would be for a café. "We started to talk about what we would do there -- really good coffee, panini and soup, wireless Internet," he says.

Patrick had spent more than 30 years in the entertainment industry in various jobs, mostly in or around movie studios. But that year, the film industry was "taking a beating" and he needed something else to do. "The more we talked, the more we liked, and as the film biz had all but ground to a halt, we had to consider alternatives," he says. "After a few family meetings and number crunching, we went for it, and got it."

One of Patrick's ideals was to run the place entirely on open source software. He'd discovered Mandrakelinux back in 2000, and that was the beginning of a love-hate relationship with a whole new world of software. "The early versions of Mandrake were klunky," he says, "and it didn't 'just work,' but I immediately grokked the open source thing and stuck with it. As Mandrake went 9.1, I hopped off the RPM dependency hell train and went Knoppix. Debian was a breath of fresh air." Patrick says he became obsessed with the development of open source, confident that Linux would become a viable alternative to Windows.

When Patrick and family finally opened the doors to the linuxcaffe in June 2005, he had lived up to his goal of 100% open source. The business runs Ubuntu Linux on five servers. The point-of-sale server runs the L'âne POS application on a Celeron 700, with a Javelin Wedge P150 touch screen thin client terminal. There's also a media server on a Pentium 4 that runs the jukebox, videos, and webcams; a Pentium 3 development server running Asterisk and anything else they're testing; and the "burn unit," Patrick's nickname for the Pentium 3 machine that is dedicated to burning CDs and DVDs for clients.

Patrick and his employees gleefully burn and distribute free Linux CDs to anyone who shows an interest. In a post at the linuxcaffe blog, he tells the story of a young Rwandan girl who saw the shop's marquee promoting Ubuntu Linux, came in to inform them that Ubuntu 4U meant "free for you" in her language, and walked out carrying her very own official copy of Ubuntu.

Wi-Fi access is free at the café, but visitors may also rent a computer while they're there. "We've standardized on ThinkPad 600s for rental units," Patrick says, "and they run beautifully as thin clients. The great thing about it is they're inexpensive [and] customers feel special because they're using a laptop."

Even though Patrick endorses the open source philosophy, only about a third of his clientele are Linux users, he says. "About 100 people a day make a regular stop at linuxcaffe. The free Wi-Fi is an important draw, but kids, university students, construction workers, gay couples, and grannies all feel welcome here." Patrick says it is the food, art, and music, and not necessarily the software, that have made it a "favorite hangout."

Though his dream of opening a coffee shop is fulfilled, Patrick isn't stopping there. He and his team of developers and barristas are working on a local Web portal that will allow customers to do their online shopping at the café, and instead of entering their credit card information, they will be able to pay in cash and allow linuxcaffe to handle the transaction with the merchant. Patrick is also working to develop an automated DVD/CD burning system. "Customers will be able to choose from a wide range of software, text, music, and film," he says, "and will be able to assemble custom CDs or DVDs."

He's also working on a plan that would allow customers to rent a thin-client ThinkPad and take it to the local park. "I want to engage the local non-geek community with things like yard sales and weekly movies in the park," Patrick says.

Patrick says he and his team have become de facto computer consultants. "If someone buys a Linux distro and brings in their machine, I will offer 'over the shoulder' guidance at no cost," he says, and "expert support can be arranged." The café team will even help with Windows. "I usually express my sympathies, suggest they get a real operating system, and refer them to a local 15-year-old who's good with that sort of thing."

In the future, Patrick looks forward to opening other locations. "Once the internal systems are refined and stabilized, I would like to create a linuxcaffe CD that could be used to open other locations with minimal hassle," he says. He calls it a "bootable franchise."

CORRECTION: The article incorrectly states that linuxcaffe gives away Linux CDs. linuxcaffe charges a small amount to cover the cost of the CD and the time to burn it.

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