Red Hot

The open-source movement basks in the glow of a successful IPO for Red Hat, the first Linux company to go public.

Published August 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It would be hard to imagine a more fitting exclamation point for this week's LinuxWorld conference in San Jose than Red Hat's successful initial public offering on Wednesday. Bigger, glitzier, featuring more suits and fewer obvious geek freaks than any Linux convention hitherto, LinuxWorld shouted out loud that "free software" is an inescapable commercial reality. If it wasn't Intel's Andy Grove making a surprise appearance at Tuesday's first keynote, then it was Motorola announcing a deal with Linux distribution vendor Caldera Systems while IBM signed a contract with LinuxCare for service and support. No one needs to hype Linux any more -- that job is done.

But before Red Hat started trading, there was still a foreboding sense of jittery anticipation at the San Jose Convention Center. The stock market -- Internet stocks in particular -- has been miserable for weeks. A bad showing by Red Hat would no doubt have meant delays and dejection for the other Linux companies eager to go public -- and given critics of free software plenty of meat to chew on.

Then the word came down Tuesday night that Red Hat's opening share price had been raised from the $10-to-$12 range to the $12-to-$14 range -- a good sign. When Red Hat went out the door at $14 and opened trading on Wednesday at $48.50, the buzz moved through the booths of the exhibition floor in an almost palpable wave. For those who want to make a buck off of Linux, Red Hat's IPO, which finished the day at $52.06, was the ultimate validation. Restrained jubilation was the order of the day -- except, unfortunately, for those free software hackers who for one reason or another failed to get their piece of the action.

Of course, not everybody in the Linux world wants to make money. It's difficult to conceive of any other technology conference prominently featuring a panel discussion concerning the topic of whether "commercialization" poses a threat to its main product. And it's never wise to underestimate basic hacker passions. Tuesday morning, as a Corel employee demonstrated just how wonderfully similar to Windows the new Corel Linux distribution is, one hacker stared in disgust and muttered, "If this becomes popular I'm going to kill myself."

Hyperbole perhaps -- as Larry Augustin, the conference chairman and CEO of the next likely open-source IPO contender, VA Linux Systems, noted, the great thing about Linux is that if you don't like the Windows-style desktop, you can just rip it out and replace it with another. But the unhappy hacker did have a point. What's so great about an alternative operating system if it turns out that everybody wants it to look exactly like Microsoft's software?

Ask that question of your average conference attendee, though, and the most likely response would be, "Well, it might look similar, but our alternative operating system actually works." As was clear again and again from conversations with exhibitors, programmers and speakers, there's no shortage of sublime arrogance in the free software world.

And this week, after the biggest Linux event ever was punctuated by a rousing cheer for free software from Wall Street, it's easy to understand why.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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