Gathering of the Linux tribes

Gathering of the Linux tribes: By Andrew Leonard. Hackers and suits eye each other warily amid LinuxWorld hoopla.


Andrew Leonard
March 5, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

SAN JOSE -- Linus Torvalds finally got his cue to leave the monster party that capped the first full day of LinuxWorld when the band started playing. It wasn't the paparazzi-like press that forced him out, or the throngs of adulatory fans pestering him for autographs. Torvalds accepted those indignities with customary grace. But there was no avoiding the band, a Devo-ish collection of wackos who were generating some serious noise. And Torvalds' two very small daughters, Patricia and Daniela, simply could not be expected to put up with such techno-punk pyrotechnics.

What kind of man would bring a 2-year-old and a 10-month-old to a party attended by literally thousands of beer- and wine-guzzling geeks hopped up on the exhilaration of the free software/open-source movement at a moment of triumph? A family man, actually. Larry Augustin, the chairman of LinuxWorld, noted during his introduction of Torvalds as keynote speaker that the conference staff had become alarmed when they couldn't find Torvalds just before the sound check. Not to worry, said Torvalds' wife, Tove -- he'd gone to get the diaper bag.

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Torvalds clearly takes his child-care responsibilities as seriously as he does his commitment to extending the Linux kernel -- the core of the now-famous open-source operating system shaking up the entire computing industry. His essential solidity serves as reassurance for those who wonder about Linux's future direction.

On the first day of the first LinuxWorld -- the biggest Linux-themed event ever held -- it was plain that corporate involvement in open source is destined to rise dramatically. That could lead to debilitating culture clashes, along with ever-tougher questions about whether companies can actually make money from free software.

How the conflicts will all play out is anyone's guess. But with the steady hand of Linus Torvalds at the tiller, right now there is good reason for those at the San Jose Convention Center, as Torvalds encouraged them, to "partay!"

The corporate world has arrived -- there is no question about that. Melissa London, PR director for the leading Linux distribution vendor Red Hat, said that she and Bob Young, Red Hat's CEO, shared a "bittersweet" moment when they first walked onto the exhibit room floor and saw all the fancy booths. Not too long ago, recalled London, Linux events were low-budget affairs where you were lucky if you had a backdrop to stand in front of, much less a booth.

But at LinuxWorld, the likes of Compaq, Sun and Hewlett-Packard were out in force, and Linux vendors such as Red Hat, Caldera, Suse, along with hardware vendors like Larry Augustin's VA Research, were determined to look as glossy as the big boys. Red Hat's booth flaunted a gleaming Harley, soon to be given away to some lucky soul. Meanwhile, across the floor, the upstart Linux support company, LinuxCare, was also getting into the giveaway act with a new Volkswagen Beetle.

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Keynote speeches from Corel CEO Michael Cowpland and Oracle's vice president of international marketing, Mark Jarvis, further underlined the new corporate profile of open source. IBM held a press conference; VA Research announced a deal with Intel. Red Hat's Bob Young wore the self-satisfied smile of the Cheshire cat. A year ago he was making outlandish promises about corporate support for Linux; now his predictions are coming true.

But the corporate invasion existed in a parallel universe with what one attendee called "the gathering of the tribes." Everyone who is anybody in the free software/open-source movement was here. And the smiles exchanged between fellow hackers seemed as much generated by the simple thrill of seeing so many geeks in one place as by the joy of finally making the case for free software to big business.

Most visitors, for example, seemed to treat the Sun and HP booths with a cursory, passing glance. Meanwhile, in the far corner of the room, the crowds were thickest around the Slashdot and Debian booths. Slashdot's Rob Malda, frenetically typing away at his laptop in an effort to post stories to his "news for nerds" site, took a brief timeout to exclaim, "This is big!" while his compadres did bang-up business selling Slashdot T-shirts. Meanwhile, throngs of hackers crowded around the Debian booth. Debian is the most explicitly noncommercial distribution of Linux -- and the fact that there were more hangers-on and more buzz around the Debian booth spoke volumes about the values closest to the hearts of many conference attendees.

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Indeed, just around the corner from the Debian booth one could find Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, holding forth. Stallman would probably have rather been onstage delivering a keynote, but he relishes any attempt to get his message to the masses. He also took obvious pleasure in blasting a conference organizer -- who had come over simply to thank him for attending -- for the conference's decision to bestow a keynote on Oracle, a company that, Stallman said, "had done nothing for the community."

The organizer hemmed and hawed, and said something to the effect of "We're still learning how to do this, and we'd love to have you speak at the August LinuxWorld." He avoided saying the obvious: Oracle is a "Platinum Sponsor" of LinuxWorld. The company paid good money to get that keynote spot.

The basis for the decision to highlight Oracle was obvious, but the effect was unfortunate. Mark Jarvis, the Oracle VP, gave a slick presentation pushing the merits of Oracle database software, with a few obligatory references to Linux. The response from the audience was tepid -- they clearly hadn't come to LinuxWorld to listen to advertisements for Oracle software, even if they were ready to oblige Jarvis with applause and snickers at every anti-Microsoft jab.

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But the relentless Microsoft-bashing grew tiresome. Jarvis, and Corel's Cowpland before him, mentioned the words "Microsoft" and "Windows" more often than they did Linux itself. Their companies' interest in open-source software is transparent: They want an edge on Microsoft. But it's one thing when a hacker vents about the inadequacies of Microsoft software and another matter entirely when an exec from a competitor complains about the "tax to Redmond." These companies are a lot less interested in propagating the free-software ideal than in supplanting Microsoft at the top of the software-biz heap, and their complaints sound increasingly like sour grapes.

There was only one person, all day long, who didn't feel the need to utter the word Microsoft, and that was Linus Torvalds. His reticence was undoubtedly a measure of his unshakeable self-confidence, but it also was a clue to his motivation: He likes hacking the kernel. And he's said repeatedly that as long as he finds kernel hacking interesting, he will keep doing it.

The difference between the hackers who concoct open-source software because they like it and the businessmen hunting for strategic advantages was also evident in back-to-back press conferences held by IBM and VA Research, a leading vendor of Linux-based computer systems. Two IBM representatives talked soberly about the growing Linux market and the potential for IBM to exploit various niches in that market. VA Research's event, on the other hand, was a love fest by and for geeks. VA Research's people spent as much time stressing that their recent purchase of the "linux.com" domain was not motivated by financial considerations as they did talking about their new deal with Intel, which will give them advance access to Intel chip secrets.

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VA's Augustin loves what he is doing, and loves being able to give credit to the programmers who make it possible; the IBM men were just doing their job. The VA Research press conference was packed with hackers; IBM's was overflowing with the trade press.

As I walked the exhibit room floor before Torvalds' evening keynote, it seemed to me that the corporate and free-software cultures weren't quite meshing. As cynical industry veterans declared that Linux was doomed to fragment into a chaos of incompatible systems, just as Unix had before it, gleeful hackers roamed the room sporting "Linus Torvalds for president" buttons and penguin-festooned T-shirts (the penguin is the Linux mascot). How would these people ever see eye to eye? Was there, in the long run, any common ground between Richard Stallman and IBM?

But after Torvalds' speech, the question seemed irrelevant. It's not that Torvalds is a particularly dynamic speaker; he has a sly wit that appeals to goofy hacker sensibilities, but he's no Steve Jobs or Steven Ballmer. He's not there to get sweaty and pump up the troops. He's a straightforward guy who, more than anything else, comes across as extraordinarily even-keeled.

Listening to him speak, I realized that it just doesn't matter whether corporations embrace Linux, whether Microsoft is threatened at all by the rise of open source, or whether there is any profit whatsoever to be made from free software. As long as Torvalds likes to do what he is doing -- as long as all the free-software and open-source hackers keep on writing code, simply because they want to -- there will always be free software, and it will keep getting better.

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Just before he left the building, Torvalds took center stage one last time at the big bash sponsored by LinuxCare -- an open-bar extravaganza for literally thousands of guests. A raucous cheer went up from the giddy crowd. Torvalds just waved, said, "Have a good time" and left to snatch up his babies.

It would be hard to imagine a more innocuous way to end a day full of so much corporate hype and visionary pronouncements. But it was also extraordinarily pertinent: There's no point to free software if the people who are doing it aren't having a good time.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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