The Invisible Demo

by Doc Searls

During lunch outside at Demo 2004 in Scottsdale two days ago, I sat down at a big round table and discovered that I was in the company of bishops: a quorum of top tech editors from the leading business publications, including Steve Wildstrom of Business Week, Peter Lewis of Forbes, Dan Farber of CNET and Mitch Relative of Business 2.0. I knew Dan and Mitch but wasn't sure I had met the other guys. When I introduced myself to Peter, he said he knew me "by reputation". I was afraid to ask what he meant by that.

Demo is a major event, also an expensive one. Journalists from niche publications such as Linux Journal aren't usually given press passes to things like this, but a friend of friend pulled some strings and there I was--not sure if I was a fly on the wall or in the ointment.

As trade shows go, Demo is pure vendor sports. Billed as a "launchpad for emerging technology", this year it featured 67 new products and services, both on stage and on a show floor that consisted of small kiosks, all the same size, arranged six across and twelve deep. On stage, companies were given no more than five minutes to make their presentations; some had only one minute for their presentations, complete with a stopwatch on screen. This discipline effected results that were highly creative, scripted or simply brief. In every case, they also definitely were rehearsed. The worst were live infomercials; the best ranged from entertaining to mind-blowing.

The talk over lunch was mostly about sizzle. What was cool? What did you like best or worst? It also drifted off to weather, traffic, airports and other standard stuff.

As it turned out, the one mind-blowing demonstration was a couple hours away. Total Immersion, a virtual reality company from France, had everybody spellbound while the demonstrator flew virtual helicopters over the audiences heads and directed tanks and cars around a virtual village--all controlled by the gestures of a luminous baton that looked like a light sabre from Star Wars. I didn't find out if Linux was involved. The Web site is served by BSD, which may not mean anything.

What really blew my mind was what nobody could see and nobody was showing off--Linux seemed to run under almost everything downstairs in the demo pavilion. While I know there were many more running Linux, I had time to sit down with nine of them:

  • AllenPort: new Linux PC

  • IMLogic: multi-platform instant messaging, including Linux

  • Imperva: application security on a bootable Linux CD

  • Its-the-content, aka ShareALot: photo sharing system, multi-platform, runs on Linux

  • Molino Networks: Linux-based home media storage

  • Metapa: high performance clustering for open-source databases

  • WaveMarket: geo-blogware, among other things, running on Debian

  • SixApart: leading blog software company, runs on Linux

  • Oddpost: Web mail and RSS news aggregation, runs on Debian

The first guy I ran into was Russell Beattie at the WaveMarket booth, ideally situated just inside the door to the pavilion. I had been highly impressed by the company demo earlier, which showed a remarkable combination of blogging, mapping and cellular telephony. Here's a sample from the recorded conversation that followed:

We're using Linux first of all because we're a Linux shop. Our CTO even has a Linux laptop.

But also on my own server I was running my weblog, which gets a million hits or so every month. It's a Java-based server on top of Linux. It had been up over 341 days and there'd never been a problem. So to me it was the only sort of solution that I would go with.

At first we were using Red Hat 8 and were having problems compiling a mod plugin for Apache (which meant) we couldn't run Tomcat, which is our Java application server. We didn't want to go with Red Hat 9 because it was at end of life. One of the guys in the office kept saying "Debian is the way to go", and that's the way we went.

I think Debian's becoming the only solution. I don't know if I trust Fedora yet because I don't know if there's a community around it or if it's going to gather the momentum. There's a perfect community behind Debian. It's so great. I had a problem with a compiler, wrote about it on my blog, and somebody just e-mailed me this morning and said "I read about your compiling problem, and here's how to do it."

Next stop was Oddpost, where they began enthusing about Debian as soon as they saw me. Some samples from conversation there, with several people:

We started off using Debian. Both Oddpost and NewsDash are using Debian.

We were running mod-python at first and then switched over to Tomcat for the Java. We use Exim as our MTA. We use fetchmail. We use Courier-IMAP for our IMAP server.

In many ways I see Oddpost as a Web-friendly interface to a lot of open-source technology. SpamAssassin...all these great things. We're always trying to keep on top of them as they develop.

Next was Allenport, which is making "what the PC would look like if the Internet came first". Severely easy-to-use, the AllenPort features a touchscreen and a service delivery model that backs up everything off-site for you. The final form factor isn't chosen yet, but they say they're getting close.

Founder Joel Allen reminds me of Jeff Bridges in the movie Tucker--an inventive square peg who's also a good salesman. His press kit modestly begins, "Industry outsider promises to turn PC Industry on its Ear at Demo 2004." CTO Samir Patel gave me the technical rundown:

We didn't use a distribution but built our Linux from the ground up. From scratch. We're using 2.4x right now but will be using the 2.6 kernel. On top of that we have a distributed file sharing system, and on top of that we're putting open-source applications. The GUI looks closed, but it's just simplicity. We're using nothing but open source, integrated together. Optimized to the exact hardware specs of the machine.

Joel adds:

The idea is to make it look like an appliance, though it's not. You've got local power, local storage. Mail is Evolution by Ximian. It's a nice package, good functionality.... We want this to act like a single local computer. But we want it to truly be a network appliance.

It's not a thin client, because it works if the network goes down. But everything is backed up at the central server. Seamlessly.

The beauty of open source is, we don't have to push the applications out, but get them free and put them on any device, any place. Of course, we'll do the version control and management, the application setting maintenance and so on. The result is a set of apps, data and settings that follows you around.

We'll sell the box, but not for much. Mostly we'll make money from selling the service, which includes remote data storage, protection, management, updates and so on.

This scares a lot of people. But it doesn't scare the people who just want a computer that works.

They showed me the "appliance", a stand-in for the ultimate machine, coordinating with an HP iPAQ running Linux as well. Very ambitious stuff.

Next was Shlomo Kramer of Imperva. Shlomo was introduced to me as "the father of the firewall". "No, I'm the mother", he corrected. Specifically, he was the co-founder of CheckPoint, a rather large name in the firewall business. He began:

We started two years ago working on protecting Web applications--on-line banking, supply chain management. In the larger community of users we are becoming more and more vulnerable. So we're moving protection up in to the application layer from the firewall. Seventy five percent of attacks happen at the application layer. This is the new bottom floor. The product is SecureSphere.

There are criminals, semi-organized groups in China and Russia, attacking Petco, Dell, Gateway--at the application level. This is our space.

We take Linux, we harden it, bundle it with our SecureSphere and make a bootable CD. Put it in a PC and you've got a SecureSphere server.

I could go on, but the deadline approaches.

Two things blew my mind downstairs there at Demo. One was that so many of these hot new products and services were deployed on Linux as a matter of course; the operating system choice was hardly open to question. The other is that Debian is clearly emerging as a primary choice, even for somewhat embedded products.

In fact, Netcraft's latest numbers bear that out as well: Red Hat is still the leading distribution (at least in terms of presence in Apache headers), but Debian is gaining rapidly, with a growth rate of 24.6%.

Want to know how to make money with Linux? Grab the free stuff and build something on it that makes money. These guys at Demo demonstrated the model beautifully.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column is Linux For Suits, and his bi-weekly newsletter is SuitWatch.

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