More Business, Less Boothness

by Doc Searls

Editors' Note: The following is this week's issue of SuitWatch, LJ senior editor Doc Searls' biweekly newsletter. Subscribe now to receive news and views about Linux in business.

Last week's LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco was surreal. If you walked in the front door of Moscone's North Hall and looked at only the brand names of the biggest booths on the floor, you might think you were at Comdex '85 or PC Expo '92. Clustered together in sprawling booths at the center of the floor were IBM, HP, Sun, Intel and AMD. All of them were filled with upbeat business folk, talking business trash, showing off third-party stuff and doing deals. For a suitwatcher like me, it was like pulling the trawler over a school of tuna.

The .ORG Pavilion was still there, but minus the pods of geeks lounging on beanbag chairs like sea lions on rocks, hacking away on their laptops. No Nerf gun battles across the booth partitions. Not even much in the way of crowd-pulling, cool new stuff. The closest thing to a major attraction was the Sharp booth, where there was a brisk business in new Zaurus PDAs. One source told me Sharp brought three thousand of the things to the show and sold them all; another source said they brought a thousand units and sold about two hundred. I also heard that HP had a nice graphics something-or-other setup, but I missed it, sticking as closely as I could to the business beat.

Across the board, the suits were happy; it turns out that Linux is very good for business. Even in a down economy, nearly all the numbers for Linux have been pointing up. IBM bragged about having telcom customers using Linux, plus

3,000 IBM ISVs with Linux-enabled applications,5,000 IBM personnel dedicated to supporting Linux, and4,000 Korean Airlines personnel using the company's new flight schedule system running on multiple Linux instances on an IBM zSeries mainframe.

Our own numbers were up too. At the Linux Journal booth, we sold three times as many subscriptions as we'd ever sold at any show.

Attendance was reportedly up 20% over the year before and was its highest level since the first show back in 1999. It was hard to believe that, though, because the crowd was so quiet and the show itself (by my own guess) took up less space than ever, maybe half the total space in the North Hall.

We have an interesting irony here: while Linux gets bigger than ever, and its leading tradeshow gets more popular than ever, the show itself gets physically smaller. So where did all the old booths go?

Well, a lot of companies went out of business with the dot-com crash. A few more left Linux altogether. A few more moved into the Big Boys' booths, which was the case with Ximian and Linuxcare. Leading personalities from both of these companies were on panels and all over the showfloor, but they didn't have booths of their own.

All of this meant that schwag (promotional giveaways) was at an all-time low. I left with a few Zaurus stylus/pens and one light-up rubber ball from...I have no idea--the inherent problem with schwag. I usually bring a whole bag of the stuff home for my 5-year-old. This time I made up for the slim pickings by bringing back a cool magnet building toy called Mags.

But there are plenty of other all-business shows where the schwag is still thick and the noise level is a lot higher. I wondered what was up with LinuxWorld.

Robin "Roblimo" Miller of OSDN still sees smoke rising from where the dot-bomb went off. "We're still dealing with the wreckages of the Internet pump and dump schemes", he said. "The dumpster trucks keep driving up and pulling away." Donald K. Rosenberg, author of Open Source: The Unauthorized White Papers, said, "There's less hype now with the realization that Linux is at work and that there is a lot of it out here. But what we have now is real world excitement, not contrived excitement."

The excitement for the big boys was mostly about the nuts & bolts side of their involvement with Linux. In their keynotes, IBM and Sun bragged about how much they had contributed, both to The Linux Cause and to its development tools.

Consistent with that trend, third-party development outfits also were looking strong. Trolltech was there, as always. Borland had one of the biggest non-hardware booths. Ted Shelton of Borland told me that Kylix, the company's Integrated Development Environment (IDE), is a huge success. Sales for Kylix' cross-platform IDE for Delphi alone are in the multimillion-dollar range. Now Borland is pushing Kylix for cross-platform C++ development, and Ted told me Borland expects this to expand Kylix' market enormously.

But there were downbeat remarks as well. One was lamentation over the continued absence of a single Linux standard. Although all the distributors and hardware vendors say they support the Linux Standard Base (LSB), Red Hat says it may be quite a while before all its offerings are in compliance. Given Red Hat's huge market share, its distribution is effectively a second standard. And because different hardware and software vendors certify to different generations of Red Hat and other distros, there turn out to be many Linuxes to cope with rather than just one. An executive with one software company at the show told me, "Linux hasn't just forked--it's fanned out." He said his company copes by developing for only the latest distros from Red Hat and SuSE and doesn't even bother trying to comply with anything else. On a panel, Michael Tiemann of Red Hat said they're stretching new release generations out to about eighteen months apart.

Meanwhile the problem persists. "Installations can be a nightmare", said Larry Augustin, founder and chairman of VA Software. He claimed that the majority of SourceForge installation time usually is spent getting hardware and application software to match up.

David Sifry, who cofounded Linuxcare and Sputnik (where he's CTO), said:

Linux is 90% of the way there--but getting the final 10% of the way requires a level of money, effort and fascism that doesn't exist in the Linux community. It is a level of integration that only a controlling monopolist can provide, and because the Linux user community rejects that model, there will always be a necessary level of expertise and pain-in-the-ass factor when integrating multivendor proprietary applications. This is why I think the most realistic approach to integration is not at the application level but at the host level. Have a distinct host or cluster for each application, and it doesn't matter if one app is running on Debian and another is running on Red Hat. It only matters that the communications interfaces be compatible. That's also why I believe that communications glue like SOAP, XML-RPC and Jabber are vital infrastructure for the next generation of applications.

And in a sort-of related development, I ran into Apache's own Brian Behlendorf at an off-site Linuxcare announcement of a big partnership deal with IBM, which is using Linuxcare's new Levanta software to manage multiple instances of Linux on zSeries mainframes. Brian's company, CollabNet, has been working with Sun, RealNetworks and other large companies to meet their market demand for mixed open-source and commercial development strategies. VA Software has managed to stay in business by serving the same market demand with SourceForge. In fact, VA had a deal going with IBM, too.

The sense I came away with is that the whole Linux-in-Business thing is still new, yet remarkably close to the World Domination ideal. How close? Well, Microsoft was at the show for the first time (they were sort of a side-show curiosity). And I heard that Apple will have a large presence (whatever that means) at the next LinuxWorld.

Like flies to honey, they come.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.


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