May 16, 2007

Portrait: Long-time Linux advocate Clay Claiborne

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Clay Claiborne was an early Linux advocate, and his company, Cosmos Engineering, was one of the first computer builders to offer Linux-based PCs and servers. But Clay has never been as much about business as he's been about social activism. He cofounded the Linux Users of Los Angeles (LULA) group back in 1999, but lately he's dropped out of Linux activism and is spending most of his time on social (mostly anti-war) activism. He'll still happily build you a Linux-based entertainment center PC, but his current passion is making a Vietnam War video retrospective he hopes will help Americans remember how poorly that adventure ended, and how the experience we gained in Vietnam should should be applied to our occupation of Iraq.
Clay Claiborne

On the Linux front, Clay's most notable pioneering effort was his mid-'90s Linux on a Disk (LOAD) product. It was Linux preloaded on a hard drive that you'd plug into your existing computer instead of downloading a distribution -- specifically Red Hat back then -- and burning your download onto a dozen or more diskettes.

Back when Clay started selling LOAD, broadband connections were few and far between, and CD burners were not common. Buying a hard drive with Linux already on it was the simplest and easiest way for a lot of people to get Linux back then. Clay says he shipped LOADed hard drives to Hewlett-Packard and IBM people, not to mention plenty of others, and that for many corporate types this was their first encounter with Linux. He's not taking credit for turning HP or IBM on to Linux for the first time, but he believes his efforts may have helped them realize that Linux was a viable operating system for professionals.

Clay got into the computer-building business in 1984, when he founded Cosmos Engineering. In 1996 he started concentrating on computers running Linux both under his Cosmos Engineering brand name and as Linux Beach, a name Clay selected because he has been a devout Venice Beach resident for many years.

Linux, Venice Beach, and Clay have all changed over the last decade. Linux, of course, has gone from radical movement to commercially acceptable computer operating system, Venice Beach has gone from Bohemian hangout to yuppie haven -- the owner of a one-bedroom house next door to Clay's rent-controlled $1,000/month studio apartment was asking $1.3 million for it in early 2007 -- and Clay has become less active in Linux-type activities and more active in the peace movement.

His current main project is a Vietnam War retrospective video based on thousands of TV and film clips taken while the Vietnam War was still going strong, all filed and catalogued in a PHP/MySQL system Clay wrote for himself that runs on his personal MythTV box. The amount of time he's putting into this video project has severely curtailed his business activities; he's still building and supporting Linux computers, but he says that he is currently "dipping into savings" since he cut back his work hours to make more time for anti-war activities.

On the social front, Clay was fascinated by Free Software from the first moment he heard about the concept. He saw it as a way for ordinary people to liberate themselves from corporate and government control, at least in the computing portions of their lives.

Clay is still a devoted Linux user and advocate even if, for now, he's concentrating his activism in other directions. He'd really like to merge his Linux and FOSS activism with his peace and environmental activities by showing radical groups how FOSS can help them achieve their goals and, at the same time, help free their computers from the corporate behemoths (i.e. Microsoft) that dominate the IT industry. He has tried to bring groups of FOSS advocates and social activists together, but says "the only people who ever come are eight or 10 Free Software people who are also interested in leftist politics."

It saddens Clay that anti-war movement people "don't understand that Linux is closer to their politics than Windows" and that "they nod their heads when you tell them about Free Software, but go on using Windows."

Someday, perhaps in part due to Clay's efforts, all wars will end and FOSS will run most of the world's computers. But right now the main things on Clay's mind are a pleasant meal and a brisk stroll along the boardwalk. The world's problems will still be with us tomorrow, and even a devoted activist like Clay deserves a break from them now and then.

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.