August 16, 2002

LinuxWorld wrap-up: Who loves ya, baby?

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Forget the product announcements and PR blasts coming out of the latest LinuxWorld. The big story is that a bunch of huge IT companies are engaged in a battle to see who has the best Linux and Open Source creds. No matter who wins this battle -- assuming its winnable -- Linux and Linux users are going to win, and win big.

During the waning hours of the show, I was sitting in the press lounge with Doc Searles (of Linux Journal) and one of the PR people for LinuxWorld organizer IDG (International Data Group), discussing the show and its future. Doc is a true, old-line Linux guy who liked LinuxWorld better when it had more, smaller exhibitors, the "freak" contingent was out in force, and there was hardly a marketing person in sight.

The IDG PR person reminded us that, according to IDG's statistics, 35% of this LinuxWorld's registered attendees had purchasing power of $500,000 or more. She pointed out that Sharp brought more than 2000 (Linux-powered) Zaurus handhelds to the show and told her they sold all of them -- for $299 each. I personally found the most interesting booth to be one run by a company that sells discount inkjet printer cartridges and refill kits. Here was a company with no direct Linux connection, selling their products at a Linux show. I talked to the owner of the company (who was running the booth) and he said it was a "great show" in terms of sales.

Let's not knock business. We all like to eat, and either directly or indirectly we all depend on a healthy business environment for our eating money. The more money Linux represents, the more jobs there will be for Linux sysadmins and programmers -- and for marketing and support people and other workers whose livings will come to depend on Linux, which means more Linux, which will inevitably beget yet more Linux, and so on. I am willing to leave behind a lot of the early LinuxWorld party atmosphere if the new, more sober LinuxWorld, attended by lots of corporate types who are willing to invest heavily in Linux -- and Linux people -- can help make Linux more attractive to a wider range of users.

Corporate infighting!

IBM has bad things to say about Sun. Sun snipes at this one and that one. UnitedLinux lashes out at Red Hat and Sun. HP acts superior because HP now owns Compaq, which bought Unix-heartbeat Digital. Oracle boasts about making some of their products Open Source and pans Sun's StarOffice and the OpenOffice.org suite Sun sponsors. Red Hat stays gracious, but nerves in their booth seem a little frazzled when other distributions are mentioned. A small Microsoft contingent tries desperately (and unsuccessfully) to fit into this bizarre mix, despite ladling out nearly constant verbal attacks on the GPL under which Linux is licensed.

Intel and AMD are both here, competing hard in the "Who Loves Linux Most?" contest. Dell isn't around, but is using the LinuxWorld spotlight as an excuse to PR their new line of enterprise-level computers that are shipped without an OS installed. Penguin Computing, an old-line Linux hardware stalwart, is front and center and standing tall. Their booth may not be as big as IBM's or HP's, but Penguin Computing is as Linux as corporate Linux can get.

Some of the megacorps' attempts to show how heartily they are embracing Linux seem a little like white teenagers going into an all-black neighborhood and playing gangsta rap loudly through the stereo in mommy's Buick to show just how down they are with the brothers. At one point, I had a strange vision of the HP actors who were doing their professionally-directed "Why HP is your best Linux choice" presentation suddenly starting to do the Funky Linux Chicken on their little stage, accompanied by an Eminem vocal rendition of Pump Up the Linux on top of a track laid down by DJ Grandmaster Flash, who would of course be sponsored by Macromedia.

IBM could take a more country approach, with a sweet-voiced warbler singing, "We were Linux ... when Linux wasn't cool." And IBM could rightfully point out that they were the first company outside of the original corporate Linux inner circle to provide free beer to all comers at a Linux gathering, back in 1999 at a Linux Expo held in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was at that show, and the day after it ended I wrote a story predicting an increase in the commercialization of Linux and Linux events, a prediction that has certainly come true.

Assuming the free market is a good thing, and that healthy competition is good for business, having a bunch of big companies vying for the favor of Linux and Open Source developers and advocates is very good. All those years of, "Gosh, it sure is too bad Linux doesn't have any marketing," complaints have paid off. Oracle, SAP, BEA, Computer Associates and other big commercial software powers are busily porting all their major programs to Linux -- and boasting about it like mad.

Ruminations

This is the first LinuxWorld I have attended where I didn't have at least a couple of dead broke "hippie hackers" crashing on me. In "the good old days" of LinuxWorld you always had people who just showed up, without a place to stay or money to buy even the lowest-level "exhibits only" show pass, and I was a soft enough touch that I always ended up with some of them staying in my room, and I always got them press badges so they could hit the show floor and attend all the tutorials they wanted for free. It feels strange, having a hotel room to myself at a LinuxWorld, instead of having one with CAT-5 cable all over the place, and five or six laptops sharing my corporate-paid Internet connection, not to mention ordering room service food in large quantities, and endless beer and booze runs once we (inevitably) stripped the minibar. I don't want to go deeply into those stories right now. Some of them can't be fully told until the statute of limitations runs out.

Ah, well. As they say, "You had to be there."

In the end, the mainstream tends to co-opt subcultures. The Romans conquered Greece, and adopted much Greek culture. I mentioned rap, and it has certainly been co-opted by American mainstream culture, with new "underground" versions springing off the main tree where the hardcores can go to avoid the masses, much as Gentoo Linux is becoming the "geek" distro of choice in certain circles.

This is the meta-news from LinuxWorld this time around: That Linux is now part of the mainstream, and (at least during LinuxWorld) is getting coverage from mainstream media, and is getting plenty of attention from mainstream IT companies and their customers.

Don't look for "Linux world domination" in the near future. That's not going to happen. But expect more, and more straightforward, news about Linux in the tech and business sections of every publication that carries this kind of information. Expect to hear the word "Linux" on TV now and then outside of IBM sports-metaphor commercials. Look for penguins on product boxes in your local computer store, and "Linux" on more and more "supported operating systems" lists, if not immediately, at least over the next year or two. Look for more Linux certification requirements in help wanted ads, and more trade schools and junior colleges offering Linux classes.

And please don't worry about any of this. It doesn't mean Linux is getting "dumbed down." Even the most user-friendly Linux distributions have a terminal window you can pop up when you need it, and there will always be LUGs where true Linux devotees can get together and help one another, so the original heart of Linux will still be alive even if entire building full of salespeople and office functionaries start using Linux without knowing anything about what goes on behind their pretty KDE, Gnome, OEone or other graphical desktops.

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