January 25, 2003

LinuxWorld wrapup: The futility of trying to see it all

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

No one person can see everything at a show like LinuxWorld. I was on the go every second the show was open, and I didn't meet even a fraction of the 150+ exhibitors. And I barely had time to do more than poke my head into a few of the many conference sessions, even though they were at least as important as the goings-on in the exhibit hall.

The numbers

I had to leave at 3 p.m. Friday to catch my train back to Maryland, and show promoter IDG didn't have final attendance figures by then. Both IDG executives and I wondered how several online news forces managed to come up with seemingly authoritative figures. Perhaps they employ psychic reporters. My personal estimate, gleaned from conversations with the people doing registrations, was that about 20,000 people showed up, which was a nice increase from last year's New York show. The place "felt fuller" than last year, which was half-dead partly because it wasn't long after 9/11 and a lot of people still weren't traveling.

Funny: the percentage of college students and other non-corporate attendees increased steadily between Wednesday and Friday. One reason was badge-swapping. More than once I watched a young person coming into the Javits Center approach another one heading out, and ask, "Hey, are you leaving? Can I have your badge?"

"Sure," was the answer more often than not. So Bob Bobbest would give his admission badge to Bill Billest, and you suddenly had a new attendee who didn't show up in the official count.

"It's not exactly hard to get a free exhibit hall pass if you know where to look," noted Slashdot author Michael Sims as we wandered the show together. But it was faster and easier for many to get an illicit badge than to go through the registration process, so many did.

The people doing badge-grabbing didn't hurt anyone, and they were not generally the kind of person the vendors cared about one way or another, anyway. Remember, it costs vendors big bucks (usually $50,000 or more) to exhibit at a LinuxWorld, and they would like to have all attendees be IT managers carrying purchase order books with them. They are not, believe it or not, there to give out free t-shirts and other swag to students and hangers-on. They are there to sell stuff.

Swag counts continue to drop

During the IPO madness years, companies seemingly tried to outdo each other with trade show giveaways. Now that companies dealing with Linux -- and IT in general -- are forced to exercise fiscal discipline once again, they are not being so free-handed. Red Hat was not giving out caps (red ones, of course) all the time, but at set times, and you had to line up to get one. To get a small foam penguin from another vendor (I forget which one) you had to sit through a presentation first. This was the general pattern: Swag was there, but not handed out as freely as in the past.

As a journalist, easily recognizable as one because my badge said "MEDIA" on it, I could have collected all the swag I wanted, no problem. But I didn't. I was there to work, and running all over the place, and I didn't want to be encumbered by a bag full of anything. I have been to plenty of trade shows over the years, and I have collected enough t-shirts, caps, key chain flashlights, stuffed Tux dolls, and other goodies to last a lifetime. We won't even talk about the expensively-printed "media kits" exhibitors try to shove into the hands of unwary reporters. I could have ended up carrying 20 pounds of paper, all containing information easily available from the companies' Web sites. So no thanks, I do not want giveaways or media kits. I am happy to have nothing in my hands besides a pen and note pad. I am at the show to make contact with people I can later call when I need information for stories, not to be a pack horse.

How to get the best swag

I recognize that not everyone lives by my "carry nothing" trade show rule. For those of you who like to collect show goodies, I think the best way to get them is to see what other people are carrying, and if you spot someone carrying an interesting item, immediately ask them where they got it, then immediately try to go get one of the things for yourself. The best stuff tends to run out early, so perhaps you should spend the first day of the show hunting swag, and the remaining time trying to learn.

The few, the proud, the conference people

IDG Events PR director Brooke Selby told me, "Only a small percentage of attendees register for the conference sessions." But both IDG and I agree that these sessions are the heart of the show, even though they don't produce 1/10 as much hoopla as the exhibit hall.

A glance at the registration prices will show you why there are fewer conference attendees than exhibit hall pass-grabbers. This is the serious side of LinuxWorld. Most of the conference sessions I checked out were well-attended, especially (as I mentioned in my Day One diary entry, the financial industry ones).

Another good reason to be at LinuxWorld was free Linux certification testing provided by the Linux Professional Institute. I peeked in the door of the testing room (which was next to the press room) more than once. The tests were well-attended but no session was completely full. If you go to a LinuxWorld, and you are serious about working with Linux (and you have confidence in your skills), you ought to take these tests. Some say they help your career, and some say they don't, but no one has ever said having that cert on your resume hurts you, so why not take advantage of the opportunity?

More and more 'tagalong' exhibitors

In an era of increased corporate fiscal responsibility, fewer companies are willing to spring for a full-blown trade show presence. Ximian is one of the few Open Source "pure plays" that still puts up huge trade show displays. And, I assure you, Ximian had the coolest-looking big-time display in the place, by far.

But an awful lot of companies, including OSDN (hence NewsForge) parent VA Software, just had a couple of people and a small presence within a larger vendor's display area. Since VA is an IBM partner, VA's presence was in the IBM Partner Pavilion, which was of considerable size this year.

IDG's Brooke Selby estimated that "partner" displays brought the total number of exhibitors up from the official count of 150 to about 200. She didn't have an exact number, since the big companies rent big spaces (for big money) and do whatever they want within them. I personally think Brooke undercounted the number of partner displays. I didn't have time to take an exact count, but I think I saw at least 100 of them -- including the small non-profit projects that had one or two people sharing space with slightly larger projects in the dot-org pavilion.

As always, the dot-orgs were where it was at

If you go to a LinuxWorld and don't make it past the big corporate displays, full of banners and marketing people in polo shirts, to the humble little dot-org area in the back, you have deprived yourself. I didn't have a chance to meet the Gentoo people who were there, and I regret it. But I can say that about at least a dozen other worthy projects. This goes back to the "one person can only do so much in three days" problem, and I (sigh) had to spend a lot of my time in "executive briefings" and other PR-type press events because it's my job to track not just tech advances but also the business of Linux and Open Source.

Yes, we'd all like to be pure and free, but the reality is that many NewsForge readers work for a living and need to know what's happening commercially as part of their jobs. Indeed, over half of all NewsForge readers (you know who you are) have positions where they (you) either directly make hardware and software purchases or recommend those purchases to others, so that's a strong part of our coverage both at trade shows and in general. This cuts into time I could spend hanging out with people whose company I truly enjoy and whose efforts I respect (and consider the heart of the Open Source community) like GeekCorps and OpenOffice.org, to name just two.

Someday (Hey! OSDN bosses! Read this!) I hope we have budget to have someone at LinuxWorld who does nothing but report on the cool dot-org people, over and above the usual general and business-y coverage. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

HP claims $2 billion in Linux-related sales

Judy Chavis, HP's director of worldwide Linux marketing, threw this figure at us. She felt it was more important in the overall scheme of things than IBM's famous $1 billion investment in Linux, because taking in big money from Linux means that HP and others will continue to invest in Linux, and that there is a rosy future for Linux-based products, services, and jobs.

Make no mistake about it: HP, IBM, Dell, Intel, AMD, Sun, and plenty of other IT industry biggies are hot for Linux -- and most of them are willing to contribute heavily to Linux development and promotion -- because they see Linux as a permanent, fast-growing part of the software firmament. On one side, yes, the non-commercial and volunteer side of Linux is the heart of the whole thing, but on the other, it's nice (I am repeating myself here, but this needs to be said many times), it's good to have jobs and other support for Linux developers.

The greatest value of LinuxWorld, I suppose, is that it represents a central place the mainstream media -- and the corporate purchasing people and upper management crowd who take their cues from mainstream media -- can come and see that Linux is not an "upstart operating system" (a phrase that IMO is so obsolete that any reporter who uses it deserves to be head-thumped), but is a well-regarded, mature operating system that has a lot to offer everywhere from the home desktop to top-end supercomputing. Yes, Linux is the fastest-growing operating system in the world. Yes, it is stable and cost-effective, and yes, it is getting steadily easier to use.

LinuxWorld helps get that message out. Sure, *you* already know all the niceness Linux offers, but a lot of people don't. I suppose the increasingly commercialization of LinuxWorld is good, despite my personal preference for small conferences full of developers and other innovators, because it is the world's largest and loudest (and probably most effective) Linux advocacy tool.

A note about Microsoft - and irony

Whenever we mention Microsoft on NewsForge, a few readers accuse us of getting paid off by them. Yeah, right. I haven't bought a Microsoft product since 1997, and my salary covers my humble needs. Tina Gasperson, the other NewsForge mainstay staffer, also lives happily in comfortable, non-rich circumstances. We don't need mansions or yachts to feel good about ourselves. Maybe one reason we don't need money as much as some people is that we save a bunch by using Free and/or Open Source software...

But guess what? We are still going to write about Microsoft now and then, because not covering Microsoft, especially Microsoft at LinuxWorld, is like trying to cover the U.S. auto industry while pretending Ford and General Motors don't exist.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about the "Best System Integration Software" LinuxWorld award Microsoft's "Services for Unix 3.0" won. There is huge irony here, and you ought to enjoy it and congratulate Microsoft instead of complaining.

Take a look at Microsoft's pricing and licensing page for this product. See the "GPL Utility Source Code" box in the right column? That's right. Despite Microsoft's endless anti-GPL talk, Microsoft is actively distributing GNU/GPL code.

If you don't like Microsoft's products or business philosophy, fine. Don't use their products. And if you truly dislike Microsoft for whatever reason, that's fine, too. Help people find positive alternatives, like Linux and other Free and Open Source software. But keep it clean, and keep it nice, and above all try to keep it positive, because -- aside from any other reason -- positive advocacy always works better than negativity.

And what could be more positive, in the GNU/GPL activism sense, than pointing out that Microsoft, itself, sells GPL software?


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