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From the Desktop: Special Big Apple Edition

Suits and the Linux ethos

  • February 3, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Whenever I am away from home and working, I always get that odd feeling like when Batman and Robin went to England on the 1960's TV show Batman. They had a more rustic looking Bat-Cave, they drove on the left side of the road, but pretty much everything else was the same. It's the same deal for me here in New York this week, leaving me to the conclusion that I need to travel more--or stay holed up in my house.

I have seen many things at this year's first LinuxWorld Expo, some of which you will read in other, more professional articles. For now, I wanted to give you some notes and impressions from the conference room floor.

Little Linux Grows Up

There's more space on the floor this year, now that Javits has given LWE two of its megarooms. The effect when you first walk in is that there is less here this year than last, because the density of the booths is far less. This is deceptive, as there are far more booths here than I saw at Javitts in 2000.

What was almost immediately apparent was the far more polished look the conference seemed to have. The rough-around-the-edges look of some of the booths was pretty much gone, save for the few rebels located on the outer fringes.

But beyond just the look of conference was the tenor. It's changed quite a bit. Almost everyone I talked to recognized it in some fashion or another. Linux, it seems, has grown up. Marty Larsen of VA Linux actually made the best articulation of this phenomenon when he observed to me that Linux has matured, not as a technology, but as a community. We are all nine years older than we were when Linux first made the scene, and while the open source and free software movements are still going strong, the need to make some money has become a much more dominant notion for Linux.

The attendees of the conference were uniformly more corporate than last year, with far less script kiddies running around. This may have something to do that most of the kids between 18-21 were all magnetized to the pseudo-daycare booths where Tekken was being played. The older folks with the money were all off on their own business missions.

I spoke with a lot of the attendees last year and this, and here is what struck me as the biggest change. Last year, when you talked to the people "outside" Linux, they were attending the conference to see what this strange thing called Linux was about. This year, they mostly knew what it was about, and wanted to talk to people about getting their ideas implemented with Linux technology.

The success of Linux seems to have propelled it into the arena of corporate legitimacy, as more and more enterprise-level deals and contracts were announced. This is in addition to the academic and development legitimacy Linux has always had, but the new factor here is that corporate legitimacy, like it or not, is going to get the bills paid a lot faster.

Has Linux sold out? I asked this of a lot of people. The general feeling was "no" amongst the corporate folk (big surprise there) and uncomfortable winces from the idealists. This is the beginning of the success the idealists have always wanted, they admit, but they are vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of companies like IBM rolling in to LWE. Big Blue will try to take over Linux, they worry. Compaq is trying to subvert the cause. And God knows what Sun's going to do, they mutter.

These fears are unfounded, I think. No one's going to take Linux away from anyone. The very model of how Linux works, both as technology and a distribution model, is the most attractive feature for all parties. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

I think what will change in the near future is a focusing of all the different directions Linux was going. I have already seen some evidence of this at the conference--there are far less distribution booths here at LWE this year. This could be a sign that the weaker elements of Linux are getting shaken out of these corporate-loving affairs.

I am not sure this is such a bad thing. While I am not some idiot flack from Microsoft who thinks Linux is "fragmented," I do think that a concentration of all of the Linux distributions might not be such a bad thing. I don't want "one" Linux, but merging some of the good points of each of the various smaller distributions into a more consolidated set would certainly be of business value to both these new distributions and the end user.

There will always be those that will decry this business focus as taking away from the creativity that embodies the true spirit of Linux. I certainly hope this creativity does not get mauled by an influx of corporate zombies, but we also have to recognize this: it's really difficult to put food on the table with just creative spirit.

There is always this assumption that if you bring in big business, then ultimately they will assimilate you into their faceless, anonymous culture. I submit that we will influence them as much as they will influence us. I have talked to execs this week that were filled with glee--not so much about the amount of money they would make, but about how incredibly simple and unique the collaborative model of Linux is, and how fast it was going to take them where they wanted to go.

And now for some notes.

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