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.comment: Without a Parachute - page 3

The Paradox of Inverse Situation

  • February 4, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Back to the skydiving metaphor. There were lots of colorful parachutes at LinuxWorld, beckoning those in attendance to come under their sheltering influence. And there were lots of outfits that are still enjoying freefall. Under normal circumstances this could be seen as an indicator of relative health. Yet one could not help but wonder which of these expensive and colorful displays were disguises for black clouds of impending death. There was a surreal quality to the disconnect among corporate health, commitment to Linux, and vastness of a company's display.

Eazel and Ximian nee Helix were both in a celebratory mood. Eazel and Red Hat have signed a deal wherein Red Hat will -- well, the release doesn't say exactly what Red Hat will do, beyond using Eazel which in turn will be distributed as RPMs, though there's a sense that Red Hat hopes to become the content provider for Eazel's desktop services. (Red Hat, the titan of commercial Linux distributions, is for its part in a titanic mess, the iceberg having been identified as gcc-2.96.) Ximian was delighted by a new injection of venture capital from a Boston firm. Both had huge and imaginative displays that, in keeping with the tradition of computer advertising, gave the passerby no sense at all of what the advertised product is or does.

KDE, meanwhile, was off in a tiny booth in the middle of the .org section of the show, staffed not by KDE employees (of which there are none) but by volunteers who were happy to talk about KDE. KDE2 was being handed out not at the KDE booth but by SuSE, which was (a little puzzlingly) giving away a CD with the KDE2 upgrade for SuSE but not SuSE itself. The upgrade was wrapped in a small book that is the best KDE2 documentation I've seen. The difference between the displays of Gnomish stuff -- Eazel and Ximian --and the KDE display could not have been more striking. But we may here have an example of the difference between freefall and parachute: KDE's goal is to produce a good desktop that users can have for free, while the others have popped their chutes and now hope to make money.

Corel had a big display with one of those annoying too-cheerful demonstration setups: Rows of seats with a screen up front and a demonstrator showing the software. The big push was for Corel DRAW! for Linux, which given the uncertain future of Corel's association with Linux was probably the safest bet. But no one who hadn't followed the news would have been able to tell from the display that the straps on Corel's parachute harness are slipping, slipping . . .

VA Linux, too, had a huge display. It was also the first (of several) companies to set up and open a bar as the afternoon progressed. On a building across from the Javits Center was a huge VA Linux banner with the slogan "The difference between trust and antitrust." More appropriate might have been, "The difference between class-action lawsuits (and potential SEC investigations) and antitrust," though then the distinction might been have been too subtle.

IBM had a gigantic display, but IBM always has a gigantic display. It dealt with some cool stuff such as running Linux on big iron. It was also the one place, perhaps in the entire world, where one could get a CD of Linux applications for AIX 4.33 or better. "We want people to have what they want," said the fellow doing the demonstration. The last time IBM said this was in 1994, and they lived to regret it.

Absent from the scene was any mention of the Pentium IV, which caused considerable puzzlement until one remembered that the Christmas season was not exactly sparking for the computer industry, and there are lots of warehouses full of Pentium III machines that need to be sold. Nobody is going to buy them if they know that something an order of magnitude better is out there, too. If you want to see the Pentium IV hit the market, buy a couple million Pentium IIIs and give 'em to your church. AMD demonstrated the long-awaited multiple-Athlon machine, just in time for Linux-2.4.0, which has experienced some problems with certain Athlon configurations, which problems seem to include filesystem corruption. It's apparently a pretty thorny situation on which no one has quite yet gotten a handle. AMD might want to assign a few people to kernel hacking.

Absent, too, were applications. There was Kylix, sure, but the Linux industry still suffers from blindness to the fact that the desktop is crucial to the growth of the operating system, and this requires solid, full-featured, easy-to-use desktop applications. There is a dearth of these for Linux, and LinuxWorld did nothing to change that sorry situation. IBM might be porting Linux apps to AIX -- but where's SmartSuite for Linux?

Instead, the big noise was all about embedded Linux. I actually attended a news conference in which the ability of Linux to control traffic lights was heralded. This is all well and good, but it is also boring as hell. And in some cases it may be siphoning away resources from the good stuff. I was told by someone who is in a position to know that Opera, for instance, is devoting much of its time and effort to embedded systems -- while my Opera 4.0 beta 5 expires in four days!

(An aside. I sat with Linux Today's Michael Hall for long minutes as a web page load was stalled because the server that was supposed to deliver the banner at the top of the page just couldn't be bothered. My custom goes to the browser that gives any page element a user-configurable amount of time to get its act together, then goes on to the next page element and returns to the banner or whatever it was that wouldn't load only after everything else on the page has been delivered. Good idea, no?)

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