August 14, 2002

LinuxWorld diary, part two: Not for the fun of it

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Yesterday I ran into a kernel hacker I've known for several years who told me this was the most depressing LinuxWorld he'd ever attended. I wouldn't call this show depressing, but it is different from previous ones in many ways. (I'll be updating this story throughout the day, same as I did yesterday in part one.)
Back in 1999 I wrote that Linux shows were becoming increasingly commercialized, and that one day they would be nearly indistinguishable in style from Windows-oriented "mainstream" computers expos. This day has arrived. My hacker friend was upset because this was the first Linux show he went to where he stopped by exhibitors' booths and talked to the people personning them about some of his great new ideas, and wasn't greeted with enthusiasm.

This is because the people running almost all of the booths this year are marketers, not engineers or coders. They are impervious to new technical ideas -- especially kernel thoughts -- especially if they are expressed by a guy who wears a beret backwards.

My friend's biggest lament, though, was that he didn't think people were here at LinuxWorld for the sheer joy of it. "Everyone I see here," he said, "looks like they're here because they have to be, not because they want to be."

I noticed this myself. This LinuxWorld is very well-attended, but it is the most sober one I've ever seen. There are not a lot of hippie hackers hanging out, and hardly anyone is wearing funny costumes. The combination Trekkie convention and Renaissance Faire feel a lot of early Linux get-togethers had is gone. This is a business gathering. Most of the attendees I've spoken to are here for professional reasons. Many have never been to a Linux conference or show before, and are here to shop for new technologies for the companies or government agencies that employ them. This is great news for the exhibitors, but not so great for people who simply love Linux for itself.

Open Source vs. the bottom line

Three different friends have reported that Bruce Perens is wandering around the show, telling people he doesn't expect to be with HP much longer. I didn't run into Bruce myself, and HP marketing and PR people I talked to say they wouldn't know one way or the other. It would be sad to see HP lose their native guide to the Land of Open Source, but I am wondering how much attention some of the latest crop of "Linux marketers" really want to pay to Open Source beyond lip service anyway.

Last night I went to a UnitedLinux press conference. Several times I heard executives from companies that make up this alliance talk about how there was a need for two Linux distributions. Just two. I couldn't help snidely interrupting with "Debian and which other?" which got a laugh from the audience (most of whom weren't journalists) but brought no response from the UnitedLinux execs. Then the UL people started talking about release schedules, and I asked a real question: How does this whole "release schedule" thing work into the traditional Open Source "it's ready when it's ready" concept? An obfuscated reply followed that didn't answer my question at all. I asked the same question again in slightly different words. This time the response was a little clearer: The Open Source "release early, release often" concept doesn't work in the world of corporate budgeting. Oh. Okay. Glad we got that straight.

But what really got the UL people going was when I asked about Sun as a potential competitor. I had just spent nearly half a day hearing Sun people talk about how they were going into Linux in a big way, how they had 20 years experience with Open Source, how they could offer totally integrated hardware and software solutions all the way from the desktop to the top of the enterprise. I wanted to know how this was going to affect UL -- especially this "there's only room for two Linux distributions" stuff. The UL party line went: Sun is new to Linux and we aren't. We have alliances with IBM and HP and others who will never ally with Sun. Sun might change its mind at any moment. Bill Joy, a Sun biggie, may not go along with Sun's Linux makeover. So we are, like, you know, going to, um, ignore Sun. They are not a factor in our plans.

Perhaps UnitedLinux will be able to (bizspeak alert!) leverage SuSE's excellent distribution, Caldera's reseller network, Conectiva's strength in Latin America, and TurboLinux's Asian language Linux expertise well enough to survive and prosper. Perhaps, if GE suddenly decides to convert all of their 17,000-plus corporate desktops to Linux tomorrow (UL execs actually mentioned this example) the combined UL companies will have the strength to pull it off. But then, so would Red Hat in partnership with IBM. Or Red Hat in partnership with Dell. Or quite possibly Sun by itself. I do not run UnitedLinux. I do not run Sun. I do not run Red Hat. I just watch and write about who does what. It looks like I'll many interesting Linux business conflicts to write about for many years to come, especially since UnitedLinux, Red Hat, and Sun are far from the only players in the Linux distro and commercial services marketplace.

It's all about the benjamins

I seem to be focusing on the business side of LinuxWorld and ignoring everything else. That's because the business side is dominant. CEOs are the main keynote speakers, and they are drawing huge crowds. No Eric S. Raymond speech, but Google co-founder Sergey Brin sure packed them in (and said nothing that any regular, NewsForge or Slashdot reader hasn't heard before). I didn't make it to the Golden Penguin Bowl, a "geek vs. nerds" trivia game that would have been fun, because I was so busy interviewing business people. Fah. I'm no better than anyone else around here.

It's now 9:30 a.m. local time, Wednesday, and I'm still typing in my hotel room. I suppose I'd better put on a shirt and go to the convention center, not because I expect to have a lot of fun but because I'm getting paid to be there, just like almost everyone else at LinuxWorld this time around.


Here's my choice: Go hear Oracle CEO Larry Ellison talk about whatever he's going to talk about, or play with a new (to the U.S.) distro called ThizLinux. I've heard more than enough CEO speeches in my life, so ThizLinux it is.

I'll give these Hong Kong people one thing right off the bat: Their modified version of OpenOffice loads lots faster than the "original" version, and has lots more fonts -- and I'm just talking about English/western fonts, not the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ones. I played with a couple of the demo laptops the ThizLinux people ahd set up in their booth. This is, at first glance, a clean, smooth, attractive piece of work, based on a KDE frontend but even nicer. While I was there, a KDE developer wandered in, and he was admiring ThizLinux too.

I asked to have a review copy sent to my home so I can give it a real workout, but ThizLinux looks like it is going to be fun to test. Maybe the emphasis at the LinuxWorld is on servers, but there is plenty of life in the Linux desktop (mine seems pretty lively, anyway), and it's good to see another company doing some good work in this area.

Half of the reason I good to these shows is to meet people like ThizLinux General Manager Kevin Lau, a genial young man I think we'll hear more about in the future. There is a lot of new Linux activity going on in East Asia, and I don't think those of us who live and work in the U.S. or Europe know nearly as much about it as we should.


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