October 25, 2004

LinuxWorld London: Sandals and suits in symbiosis

Author: Tom Chance

If previous LinuxWorld events were anything to go by, you'd imagine hackers fortifying the defences against the invading hordes of suits. But in this month's event in London, the suits and sandals achieved a kind of happy equilibrium, with corporate representatives competing to establish their roots in the community, and the hackers in the .ORG village making a notable effort to appear more professional. Even the two desktop environments, KDE and GNOME, put aside their holy war to exhibit under the common banner of freedesktop.org.

Of course, being a trade show, LinuxWorld London wasn't without its fatuous exhibition features. Where earlier this year we were treated to a real helicopter hooked up to Flight Gear, this time around Hewlett-Packard brought in a Formula 1 racing car to show off its involvement with the WilliamsF1 team. A team of dancing penguins sought to bury visitors under more leaflets than a team with monitors mounted on their backs (showing off Sun's Project Looking Glass 3D windowing system), leading one employee of a major Linux vendor, whose identity shall remain undisclosed, to propose a hunting trip.

The silly season hit its pinnacle with a keynote from Simon Phipps, Sun's Chief Technology Evangelist. He began by introducing his audience to some hip terminology like "blog" and "online activism." More than just keywords, he claimed, these represent significant shifts in society's information philosophy that transcend economic concepts -- this I call the "bigger picture" stage of a classic keynote address. To remind the audience who they are listening to, the adroit speaker then states that these concepts, introduced as matters of liberty not economics, require a similarly significant shift in business models. Before the audience can get its heads around that one, in come Sun with the answer, ahead of the game and more in sync with the free software movement than its competition. (You can pretty much substitute the company name with any other keynote presenter and you get the same result.)

Away from keynotes and gimmicks, some serious discussions were taking place. A series of short conferences went into detail on various technical issues, Linux for the enterprise, and Linux in the public sector. With representatives as varied as Jon "maddog" Hall of Linux International and Alex Bay, senior policy officer for the Greater London Authority, the panels, by their mere presence, demonstrated a growing sense of the importance of free software.

Both in these conferences and on the floor, schools seem to be a focus of many people's attention. Large distributors face problems making significant profits from classroom sales, leaving a gap in the market for the nascent local Linux providers. But issues such as hardware compatibility, local on-site support and the range of educational software continue to trouble many.

In the .ORG village, the heart and soul of the conference, the sandals were similarly serious. Despite being squashed into small corridors between stands, giving the effect of a perpetually busy village without the need for visitors, spirits were high and exhibitors were looking more professional than ever. The Association for Free Software even briefed its helpers on the association's activities, issues that people might raise, and how to give a good spiel to visitors. According to AFFS committee member Alex Hudson, the AFFS is working on making its standard of communication more professional, though he hesitated to use that dirty word.

The nature of the AFFS, being both a political and promotional organisation, lends credit to its renewed enthusiasm for presentation. "It is not", Hudson stressed, "a matter of image, nor a merchandising exercise, but a recognition that we can better achieve our aims of talking to people about free software, and providing a platform for political advocacy, if we can deliver a professional image." Other community groups are also taking these lessons to heart, from small advances like consistent typefaces and colours, to KDE's adventurous plans for entire identity guidelines, which the AFFS, and doubtless other groups, are emulating.

This mix of suit and sandal philosophy wasn't restricted to the .ORG exhibitors. Several .ORG exhibitors told me that they had received a lot of interest from suits who wanted to learn more about the community, including some who wanted updates on hot issues like software patents and licensing conflicts. Support and awareness seemed high, and the .ORG village retained its community feel. Even KDE, GNOME, and freedesktop.org agreed to exhibit together (though world geography meant that the foot soldiers were predominantly KDE hackers) to show off new technologies like Kontact and the transparency afforded by X.Org's composite extension.

The BBC's stall, nestled in the village amongst the community, showed off some of the free software its research and development department has been developing. "We love SourceForge", one representative told me, after raving about the benefits of working in the community. The Beeb even called for community participation in its projects during LinuxWorld, embracing the hacker culture. And the word is out that it's looking into ways of distributing its archives over peer-to-peer networks if and when it opens its highly anticipated Creative Archive, with BitTorrent, as one researcher obliquely hinted may happen.

Not wanting to receive too biased an impression of the event, I cornered a lady working at the Novell stand. One of the most common moans I heard from hackers, and even some of the more community-minded companies, was the appearance of the hired hands on corporate stands. You know the kind, those representatives who seem a little too happy and attractive to be working for a nerdy company, and who you guess probably won't know the difference between ReiserFS and Ext3. "Excuse me?", was the response when I asked the lady that question. It turned out that she works for a job temp agency, and didn't know the first thing about Linux. Neither she nor her colleagues had ventured to other stands. When I told them that the .ORG village was full of people who code in their free time for free, they were slightly amused but nonetheless impressed.

As the LinuxWorld bandwagon rolls on to Frankfurt, Germany and Boston, U.S.A., it left most visitors fairly satisfied with what they had seen. Tensions between the corporate and community sides of the show continued to surface, but at least they seem to be learning how to co-exist. If a hired hand who hasn't even heard of Linux before the event can come away somewhat impressed by the community, we have to be doing something right.

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