LinuxWorld Ireland 2003
Ireland is a small country. North and South, the population does not exceed six million people. Paradoxically, when it comes to the IT industry, Ireland is a big player. For years, Ireland's IT claim-to-fame has been the fact that it is the second largest exporter of shrink-wrapped software in the world (next to the US). There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is Ireland is the European operations center for a large number of US-based companies. Microsoft, Symantec, IBM/Lotus and many others have a large presence here. But, it's not only software that's big; Intel has a chip fabrication facility an hour west of Dublin. HP, Dell, Apple and Sun are large employers. And, recently, Google announced that Ireland would host its European headquarters.
LinuxWorld came to Ireland on April 3rd, 2003. Sponsored by IBM in association with ILUG (the Irish Linux Users Group), the conference never was going to be very big. It was scheduled to take place on the last day of ICT Expo, Ireland's Information and Communications Technology Event. The small number of Linux-specific stands at the show were stuck in the middle of a mix of everything from data projector companies to accounting software suppliers. Cyclades was there, as was IBM, whose stand hosted ILUG. Red Hat boxes were everywhere, and ILUG handed out Knoppix CDs to as many delegates as they could. An Irish company, OpenApp, was on hand to discuss how it successfully is delivering IT solutions to clients using primarily open-source technologies.
The big draw (for me, anyway) was that John "maddog" Hall was scheduled to give the keynote. In addition to kicking-off the conference with the keynote, maddog spent as much time as he could at the ILUG stand, fielding questions and helping out.
Seating was available in the conference hall for about 200 delegates, and it was two-thirds full for "maddog". This was to be the largest audience for any of the six talks on the day.
The keynote was entitled "Total Cost of Ownership...More than You Think", and "maddog" highlighted the real cost of software. The mantra was "no software is without cost", and TCO is not only about hardware, software and services. "maddog" talked with some passion about empowerment, the quality of solutions, the balance of payments, IT quality, security, future cost and control. In doing so, we were treated to a tour of the world, "maddog"-style. The discussion roamed to China, Venezuela, India, Brazil and the US, with each case study showing regular people leveraging the work of others to get their own work done, all with open-source software. I initially tried to keep up with "maddog" while taking some notes, but about ten minutes into the talk, I decided to sit back and enjoy it. It was great.
It was not going to be easy to follow "maddog", and the task fell to the unfortunate David Valentine of IBM. David is IBM's Linux Leader for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and he's a Sales and Marketing guy. David was all blue-suit, traditional, conservative IBM. The audience was more jeans and t-shirt than suit, and David pitched his talk at the wrong level. If we had all been C-level people (CTO, CEO and CIO), David's talk would have been great. Unfortunately--for all concerned--the IBM talk was, well, boring. Even "maddog" had trouble keeping his eyes open. Although David's message was that, as far as IBM is concerned, Linux is ready for prime-time, the message got lost in a blur of buzzwords, marketing speak and sales pitches for zSeries systems. This, combined with David's decision to present to a Linux conference using PowerPoint on Wintel, did nothing to endear IBM to the audience. However, it must be said that it was great to see IBM supporting Linux (and ILUG) in such a big way. It was just a shame they presented in the way they did.
It was a jaded (and much depleted) audience that Ciaran McCabe of OpenApp found himself in front of for his talk, which described Linux as the "next big thing" for Irish businesses. Ciaran's message was, "Linux is ready! What's keeping you?" He worked through a selection of enterprise-ready applications in an effort to show that open-source alternatives are available for a growing number of them. The likes of ComPiere, Claroline and Kora were highlighted as case-studies.
A short lunch break allowed me to scout quickly around the rest of the exhibitors. Novell was there, as was Dell. Eircom (one of Ireland's largest telecoms providers) and Computer Associates each had a large stand. Remarkably--and I went around twice in order to confirm this--there was no Microsoft stand.
After lunch, it was Tony Redmond's, CTO of HP's Consulting and Integration Division, turn to speak. His message said HP likes Linux but thinks it is not ready for the Enterprise. In Tony's--and by association, HP's--view, Linux suffers in five key areas: manageability, support, change, perception and the desktop. The "change" complaint was that Linux is changing too rapidly for big enterprises. Poor old, conservative HP. Those Linux upstarts are upsetting their apple cart and moving much too fast for them. Again, another PowerPoint/Wintel combination did nothing but insult the by now much smaller Linux audience. Of course, it may have been me, but Tony Redmond looked an awful lot like a heavier-set Bill Gates. And, of course, there was that unfortunate last name.
The contrast between Tony and the next speaker, Michael Meeks of Ximian, could not have been more stark. Up bounded Michael, black backpack slung over his shoulder; out popped his laptop running OpenOffice.org. He plugged in, switched to the data projector and started talking. After about 10 seconds and 100 words, Michael asked if he was talking too fast. Not for an Irish audience--talking fast is a national past-time. Michael walked, almost ran, from side to side of the stage, talking about GNOME 2.2 and OpenOffice.org. He was infectious. He was wired. He was high; not on drugs (he looked too healthy) and not on booze (he was too coherent). Michael Meeks was high on freedom. The freedom to do what you need to do with your software, when you want to do it. It was pure entertainment, and the handful of delegates that hung around loved every minute of it.
Michael rebuked most of what Tony Redmond had to say about Linux. He also encouraged more developers to get involved with OpenOffice.org. When asked what he thought of the likes of AbiWord, gnumeric and Kword, Michael delivered a short, sharp, shock: "They may not know it yet, but they're dead." This resulted in a loud groan about three wasted days of effort from an audience member to my right. When Michael followed up with "Are you a member of the gnumeric team?", the delegate replied that he was just a guy with "too much free time on his hands". Michael flashed a smile, pointed back to his slide on the large data projector screen and said, "OpenOffice.org". They need more help from developers, and they need help yesterday. Bribing the audience with Ximian t-shirts and Beanie Monkeys was a master-stoke, although I suspect the questions would have come up anyway.
The final speaker was James Cleere, Sun's StarOffice Engineering Manager. Based in Dublin (where a lot of the StarOffice engineering is occurring), James talked about the StarOffice/OpenOffice.org offerings. In his view, the lack of a compatible, interoperable office suite is the main reason for Linux's lack of penetration on the desktop. He believes, as does Sun (and quite a few others, I suspect), that the latest StarOffice/OpenOffice.org offering has the potential to change all that. James presentation generated the most questions, despite being delivered to the smallest audience of the day. As an engineering manager, he came across as someone who would rather not be the center of attention, and God love him, he nearly choked to death half way through his talk. Despite this, his message was clear: StarOffice/OpenOffice.org is ready, and Sun, together with their partners (such as Ximian), is committed to the technology and its ongoing development.
In the end, the conference showed how far Linux has come. It is big business now. Granted, IBM sees Linux as a mechanism for selling zSeries, and HP sees it as a mechanism for selling services. Both kept harping on about cost savings, the bottom line, profit and the like. They obviously hadn't been listening to "maddog", as Linux is about so much more. It's about empowerment, quality, security and control. Linux is all about community.