But beneath the fun and the technology talks and the BOFs (birds-of-a-feather sessions) appeared the roots of a nasty side of Linux, one that hasn't surfaced before. In some corners the gloves have come off as companies fight for mindshare. Some, taking as a given the likelihood that Linux use is going to mushroom, are now starting to take each other on rather than advance Linux in general.
In the case of at least one incident, this new hard edge even found its way into the running of Linux Expo itself.
In some ways, Linux Expo (held the week of May 17 at the Raleigh, N.C. Convention Center) seemed the least likely venue for such infighting. Linux Expo, now in its fifth year, could hardly be mistaken for a real tradeshow. Its true strength is as a technical conference which traditionally attracts most of the core that has made Linux the success that it is.
Linux Expo has always featured top-notch speakers of substance, and this year was no exception. Separate business and technology tracks offered something high-quality for everyone. A special track was even devoted to those working with the Beowulf clustering system.
Because of the high caliber of the technical conference, Linux Expo tends to attract more propellerheads and fewer suits -- which is fine, since the suits have enough shows of their own.
What was different this year was that Linux Expo organizers, sensing the size of the bandwagon, went after a piece of the tradeshow revenue that has attracted the attention of major shows such as Comdex and LinuxWorld Conference & Expo.
As a result, this year's Linux Expo witnessed two things that would never have happened at previous shows. The first is that Linux Expo's registration system was running on dreaded Microsoft Windows -- sacrilege at an event trying to promote the use of Linux as a Windows replacement. Tradeshow management officials explained that the registration was contracted out this year to a company that used Windows, and by the time organizers found out it was too late to change.
The second event involved a dozen models roaming the streets of Raleigh because Linux Expo management wouldn't allow them in front of the show entrance.
Savvy or sneaky?
Pacific HiTech (PHT), a popular Linux distribution in Asia trying to make it in North America, tried an unusual tactic. Instead of buying booth space at the show, PHT hired a model agency to provide some young ladies to stand in front of the convention center and hand out bright yellow t-shirts featuring the company's TurboLinux product. (PHT had a small kiosk within the IBM booth, but didn't buy any booth space of its own.)
Linux Expo organizers wouldn't let the models do their stuff in front of the convention center, threatening to close down the IBM booth had they remained, according to PHT Vice President Lonn Johnston. The models invented an alternate plan and by the second morning of the Expo, they had split up and were distributing shirts outside the show hotels, as attendees boarded shuttle buses to the convention center.
"They treated us pretty badly," said Britlan Gorse, one of the models, who eventually found herself stationed in front of the Velvet Cloak Inn. "It wasn't as if we were there to talk about the product, we were just trying to give out shirts."
Indeed. These models had little idea of what TurboLinux was, or even what Linux was. Their giving out t-shirts was more harmless than anyone on the show floor giving out a business card. At least business cards have addresses.
At a real tradeshow, I can see how organizers would feel angry about a company that was being seen to exploit the show without buying booth space. But Linux Expo is no regular show, and in its attempts to be one it violated a cardinal rule of techie gatherings: You simply do not obstruct the path between a computer geek and a free t-shirt. It's just not done, and seems so petty.
PHT's Johnston maintains that pressuring the models to leave the front of the convention center was a violation of free-speech rights, but that he would not pursue the issue any further out of a "Linux spirit of cooperation." Not surprisingly, show orgaanizers refused to comment on the issue after it was picked up by the handful of media agents who actually bothered to cover this event. All the show manager would say was that PHT's actions were "inappropriate."
I disagree. Giving out free stuff to techies -- especially t-shirts -- is about as appropriate as one can get. It's just the attempt of Linux Expo to play tradeshow that got in the way of this harmless stunt.
Do what they do best
I've spoken to some people who hope that Linux Expo will give up trying to out-tradeshow the big guys, and concentrate on what it does best -- running the finest conference in the Linux universe. Here's hoping that these people get their way and make the 2000 Linux Expo less like Comdex and more like Usenix. We already have enough Comdex-type shows.
A return to Duke University (where the 1998 Linux Expo took place) would be nice, too. The Raleigh Convention Center is about as warm and friendly as a hailstorm -- someone should at least tell them about escalators.
Still, when it comes to what some Linux companies are doing to each other, the t-shirt incident is almost trivial. Next week, a nasty little story about posters, lawyers, and bare bottoms.
Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.