The Great Linux Revolt of 1998
When Sam Ockman's notice hit Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org/) at 6:21PM, it read:
The 500 members of SVLUG are going to have a big rally tonight at the largest/most prestigious computer store in Silicon Valley, Fry's, when they stay open until 1AM to distribute Windows 98. We're going to hand out Linux CDs and stuff like that as well. We'd like to have more people at the rally than go to buy Windows 98.
While it was obvious the entire membership of the LUG was not planning on showing up for a midnight rally, it was clear this was an idea with great potential. A little after 10PM, Sam and I arrived at the Chili's restaurant near the rally site to meet with people beforehand. We hoped we wouldn't be alone at the table.
We were not disappointed. There were about 15 people waiting for Sam to arrive. Some we recognized from the SVLUG, and others had seen the notice on Slashdot. Remember, only four hours had gone by since the original posting. By the time we left, the crowd had grown to 25 people.
After consuming some munchies and a stout or two, we headed for Fry's Electronics in Sunnyvale. For those of you who aren't familiar with Fry's, it is a warehouse-sized electronics, software, hardware, test equipment, junk food, book and magazine retailer here on the West Coast. Picture Price-Costco, except with resistors. Most people have a love hate relationship with Fry's, mainly on customer service issues. It's important to note that this rally was not a protest against Fry's, but a rally for Linux on MS Windows 98's birthday.
We arrived at the Fry's store around 11:30PM. The 500 CD-ROMs from the generous folks at S.u.S.E. hadn't arrived yet, and we were a little nervous that they would be late. At Fry's our numbers had doubled to a little over 50 people. By now, our signs had been pulled out and we were actively agitating for Linux. This was a peaceful gathering; we made a point of not being too annoying and staying out of the way of cars.
The S.u.S.E. CDs arrived around midnight, coinciding with the beginning of the Windows 98 CD sale. We started handing them out along with pamphlets designed by Adam Richter (of Yggdrasil) to people who were coming into and out of Fry's. At this point we had two reporters show up to document the event (see Resources below).
Also at this point, we started noticing worried-looking guys with walkie-talkies watching us from the parking lot, and some Fry's managerial types talking into their cell phones. One of the protestors overheard one of their managers call the police, and then frustratedly say to another Fry's guy, “Why can't we just go over there and rip those signs out of their geek hands?” When we heard that, we were taken aback, but it did reconfirm our desire to continue.
A few minutes later, the Sunnyvale police began to arrive in numbers. Four police cars pulled forward into the lot. I offered myself up as their contact, while Sam controlled the Linux people.
The police officer asked us what we were doing there. I described Linux and how we were trying to get the word out about it. The police officer was cool about the situation, telling me he'd have to wait for his Lieutenant to arrive before deciding what to do. We were on Fry's private property, their parking lot. It turns out there are certain situations where it's okay to protest on someone's private property. It's pretty much always okay to protest on the sidewalk. We had been expecting to be asked to move to the sidewalk eventually.
Before his Lieutenant arrived, one of the other police officers asked more about Linux. The word is one of the Linux people got a CD into his hands on his way out of the lot. He did say, “Hey, good luck with your system” to me.
Additionally, the manager of Fry's came up to me (the same one who wanted to rip the signs out of our “geek hands”) and asked me why I was doing this, as Fry's sold Linux in their book section. I pointed out that we knew this and indeed had a sign showing people which aisle to go to for the book. He then asked why the Linux marketing people or my (as if I'm in charge of Linux!) vendor relations people hadn't contacted Fry's management to arrange an event similar to the Windows 98 launch. Needless to say I was like a deer in the headlights. I told him that, in fact, Linux was a free operating system, and this was one way we saw to market it (not to mention the fact that no company, let alone a small user group, could match a MS launch when it comes down to the checkbook).
He was visibly upset, so I thought it was best to stop talking with him at this point. I told him any further communication between us would come to no good end, and we should only talk through the police. (His brains were melting out his ears by this point.)
The Lieutenant arrived and said we should move to the sidewalk, so we did, and it was just as well; cars were actually pulling over and picking up a copy of the Linux CD.
After about 15 minutes of this, we decided to hit the CompUSA store a few miles away. When we arrived, there were still a lot of people in line there. It turns out CompUSA was not only promoting Windows 98, but also doing all kinds of things to bring people into the store. They were selling computers for $98 to the first 10 people in line, and paying people $4 to take away 32MB of RAM. (Actually, the RAM was $32, but there was a $38 rebate—or something like that, it was weird.) This also meant there were a lot of people to promote Linux to. CompUSA's management people were cool; they took the rally in stride, telling Sam the rally was okay, as that was what the First Amendment was all about. Fry's had sent one of their security drones to CompUSA to warn them of our existence, but CompUSA just let us do our thing.
After CompUSA petered out, we converged on a local Denny's to nosh. Denny's flipped when they saw all the people, so we moved to a braver restaurant down the street. I got home around 3AM to find that people were already uploading pictures to the web.
By the end of the night, we had given out 500 CDs and hundreds of pamphlets. A total of six press people showed up and there were over a half-dozen mentions in major newspapers. This is not counting the coverage we received from other on-line sources, such as CNN and the BBC. Everyone involved had a rocking good time promoting Linux.
Whether or not you agree with this direct-action model of Linux marketing, we feel confident that we passed the Linux message to many thousands of people who otherwise had no real knowledge about the Linux revolution. Viva la revolución!
Chris DiBona (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer security consultant and the Vice President of the Silicon Valley Linux User's Group (http://www.svlug.org/). He enjoys Linux, studying terrorism and population statistics. He also grooves on a good Pale Ale. His personal web page can be found at http://www.dibona.com/.