The Montréal 2000 Linux Expo April 10-12
Quick—those people who have attended a science-fiction convention, put up your hand. Go ahead, admit it—this is a friendly crowd. SF convention goers have a term that describes conventions like the Montréal Linux Expo: Relaxcon. This term refers to a quiet convention, one where you can basically just relax and chat with people. While this is great for fans wanting to get close to their idols, businesses and exhibitors spending several thousand dollars for a booth may have other ideas—even in the world of free software. Don't get me wrong. On Tuesday, day one of the show, the place was hopping and you could feel the excitement at the Palais des Congrés. All in all, it was a fairly successful opening day, especially considering the weather. Wednesday, however, was a different matter. The general consensus from the vendors I spoke to on Wednesday was that day two might just as well have not happened, considering the number of people in attendance. For those of you who missed the show, let me try to paint you a picture.
Ah yes, the weather. We arrived in Montréal during what was probably the worst snowstorm of the winter. We left Mississauga with the sun shining and temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius. Around Brockville (about two-thirds of the way there), things got ugly as the blizzard set in. Our six-hour trip turned into the ten-hour drive from hell. Attendance may have been light due to the great dump of snow, but I certainly don't think the weather can be blamed for everything. The organizers expected 6000. One Montréal newspaper estimated slightly over 4500. Another paper, this one in Ottawa, cynically proclaimed, “barely 300 there for the key speeches”. I'll step out on a limb, double that number for the key speeches, and guesstimate 2500 to 3000 attendees.
Each of the keynotes was held on the first day of the Expo, Tuesday. The notables were Corel's Michael Cowpland, Red Hat's Bob Young, MandrakeSoft's Jacques Le Marois, SuSE's Dirk Hohndel, Oracle Corp., Jon “maddog” Hall and Eric S. Raymond. Linuxconf author Jacques Gélinas introduced the last two speakers, while Jean-Claude Guédon, professor of comparative literature at the University of Montréal and author of the book La Planète Cyber (Cyber Planet), moderated and introduced the keynotes.
Linux aficionados have already heard much of what was said in the keynotes, but there were some comments worth noting. Professor Guédon pointed out that his part in this Expo was partly that of an interested observer, a chronicler of a new direction in the history of the high-tech world—the Linux revolution. He suggested that “a Linux company is a bit like a scientist, because a scientist is a kind of intellectual entrepreneur.” This fit well with Eric Raymond's speech on the value of peer review in any intellectual enterprise. He explained to the audience that pseudo-sciences like alchemy took the next evolutionary step toward true science only when the work of the scientist (the source) was finally opened to public scrutiny and peer review (the open model of which Linux and GNU are the poster children). Based on the centuries of success of this approach, Mr. Raymond said he did not know what the future held, but he could tell us with near absolute certainty that “You ain't seen nothin' yet!”
Red Hat's Bob Young made an interesting analogy comparing closed-source software to the feudal system, where serfs paid for a plot of land for the privilege of working on it. He pointed out that with certain closed-software distributions, you might even risk going to jail for improving it, which would require that you somehow gained access to this highly guarded source or intellectual property. Whatever your motives, you still lose.
SuSE's CTO, Dirk Hohndel, likened the competition in the Linux marketplace to a friendly battle of wits, with companies smiling at each other while they try to outsmart each other. The great thing about Linux, he said, could be summed up in these points:
It is a dream come true.
It actually works.
It's fun to be part of.
Jon “maddog” Hall, one of the legends of Linux and the Open Source movement, gave a talk entitled “Life in the Elevator”. Unfortunately, it was delayed by hardware problems, and Mr. Hall called for recess while he hunted down his own notebook. The premise of his speech is that you enter the elevator at the bottom floor of a high-rise. Inside this elevator is a person with whom you have one minute to chat. In that one minute, they can ask any question about Linux (for instance, “What is it with the penguin, anyway?”). Mr. Hall had 15 questions in all. In that minute-long ride, you have to be able to answer any of 15 questions he presented. After each answer, Mr. Hall would declare, “And that's another minute.”
In some ways, that forced recess was a lucky break for me. In those few minutes, I caught up with Dirk Hohndel before he moved on to his next engagement. I must tell you I was already impressed with Mr. Hohndel's presentation, professionalism and support for his colleagues (and competitors) during his keynote address. In stopping for an informal chat, he proved genuine. After a brief introduction, I asked him what he has been up to and where SuSE was going.
“We are very happy with SuSE's position in the marketplace,” he told me. “With the release of our SuSE 6.4, we've achieved a 95% first-time install success.” He explained that this was partly due to SuSE's new YaST2 graphical installation tool. “Automatic hardware detection has become extremely simple.” For the 5% or so of installs that might miss something, SuSE still offers the old text-based install with more configuration options. Release 6.4 also includes a preview of XFree86 4.0, though it is not the default configuration. Mr. Hohndel said that, as one of the developers on the project, he feels this next step in X technology is important and should get as much exposure as possible.
When I asked about the future at SuSE, Mr. Hohndel said, “We are concentrating on two areas primarily: the desktop and enterprise computing.” SuSE feels that the desktop is extremely important to Linux's success and as such was an early supporter of the KDE project and continues to be supportive of KDE2. In fact, four of the developers on the KDE project now work at SuSE. Still, before KDE, you need X. Here's a sneak peek at the future of the desktop from SuSE. Their new graphical configuration tool for X, named SaX2, is the next evolutionary step in simple, dynamic X setup and configuration. With SaX2, SuSE hopes to make the dreaded task of X configuration and tweaking a thing of the past.
On the enterprise side, SuSE is increasingly providing services to Fortune 100 companies with data centers and support. (SuSE has their own support organization.) They are developing technology partnerships in a number of areas. Mr. Hohndel mentioned one such partnership with SGI, where they are building a framework dedicated to bringing high-availability clustering to the Linux world. “This is the kind of support that large companies want to see developed in Linux,” he said.
The main show floor had quite a variety of exhibitors, from Linux organizations to Linux companies and other things in between (and, of course, Linux Journal). There was a great concentration of knowledge (special thanks to the Red Hat folks for answering a niggling question regarding parallel-port weirdness in a 6.1 install), and one or two companies that didn't seem to understand that they were, in fact, selling Linux products. “Oh, no, this isn't Linux at all. It is a Linux server that offers .... ” Okay, whatever.
All in all, Linux Expo Montréal was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but I think it could have been much better. Wise and infallible in the ways of marketing I am not, but I do have some ideas as to what went wrong. It wasn't such a large Expo that visitors couldn't wander through most displays in a day. Combine this with the fact that the only other free items on the program, the keynotes, were all bundled into a three-hour session on the first day, and I think we begin to see the problem. Simply put, if you were there on the first day, why bother coming back unless you had dropped the big bucks to attend?
Another problem can be best summed up anecdotally.
One of the things I did on my visit was deliver a computer to my parents, a computer running Linux with a K desktop. My parents are complete computer newbies, but I am convinced that Linux will be as easy for them to use as “that other OS”. Not only that, it will be more reliable (read fewer support calls for me). Anyway, after the show, I stopped at a local bookstore (Camelot.ca, which happened to have a booth at the Expo under Addison Wesley's banner). While waiting at the checkout with my father's Linux reference book in hand, a university student stood in front of me paying for a Shockwave book. He looked over at me, saw the book, and asked me about Linux (note to Jon Hall—include checkouts at malls in next talk). I explained that I had been at Linux Expo.
“I didn't know there was a Linux Expo in town. When and where is it?” he asked.
“Actually, today is the last day, at the Palais des Congrés,” I said. It was already two o'clock.
“That's too bad. I would have liked to have gone. How did you find out about it?”
This guy is working with computers in a university. It occurs to me that the university computer-science crowd would have been a perfect target audience. Microsoft and IBM know this well and do their best to make sure university computer-science graduates know about their products. Why couldn't the Sky Events people figure that one out? Where did all the advertising go? I was invited, as were others who are already among the converted, but what about the people who are still discovering Linux, who may want to learn more? Who else did they miss in this way?
Sky Events is already advertising next year's Montréal Linux Expo. Heading down the escalators as I left the show, I noticed banners proudly proclaiming Linux Expo 2001—more or less same penguin-time, same penguin-channel. I hope Sky Events will take the lessons from this year's conference and turn next year's event into an even more exciting presentation. Linux Expo in Montréal was great fun, and there is no better place in North America to eat than Montréal (trust me, gentle readers, the food is amazing). It would have been nice, however, to see more faces there.