LinuxWorld: Send in the suits

At LinuxWorld, the suits mingle with the old-school, open-source crowd.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

Maybe it was the live penguins brought up on stage for no apparent reason. Or perhaps it was the surprise appearance by Intel Chairman Andy Grove during a keynote.

Whatever it was, a quick look at the suits wandering through LinuxWorld Expo made it abundantly clear just how corporate Linux is becoming.

Just 18 months ago, Linux shows featured a handful of developers milling around a few decidedly low-tech card tables, hawking CDs to a smattering of the open-source faithful.

Now, huge banners with brand names such as Dell and SGI hang from the ceiling over microphoned marketing drones, who shout to thousands of attendees about how Linux can "add value" or bring "first-class solutions" to their businesses. One company, Magic Software Enterprises, even brought some live penguins to cash in on the Linux mascot.

It hasn't quite reached the bikini-clad dancing-girls realm occupied by huge shows such as Comdex. But it could be headed that way.

And for many, making Linux corporate is a good thing. After all, more business interest means more corporate bucks for Linux upstarts such as VA Linux Systems, Red Hat, and TurboLinux. It also means more of a thorn in the side of Microsoft, a name conjured up by attendees as an example of either evil incarnate, or just an illustration of how proprietary software can go awry.

Traditional vendors from the Wintel world, such as Corel, Motorola and IBM, trumpeted new Linux products. Other companies that have not publicly declared Linux support -- firms such as Seagate and Data General -- sent scouts. "It's great to see so many corporate types here," said an executive at one of the Linux companies.

The challenge, however, is melding the two cultures. So far, Linux advocates say it's going well. "I've been very happy with the way the commercial people have worked together with the technical people," said Linux creator Linus Torvalds during a Q&A session at the show.

Many long-time Linux advocates said it comes down to educating the traditional companies about the open-source model. Under that model, companies can package and make changes to the public Linux code, as long as they share their changes with the community -- a concept potentially unsavoury to traditional firms.

Linux advocates said companies need to realise that opening up source code can expand their markets because developers can then create more software and hardware that works better with their products. "This notion of being able to give up control, that other people can take things and make them better, is a notion other companies are going to have to understand," said Larry Augustin, founder and CEO of VA Linux Systems.

Augustin and others said companies can start small, opening up source code for products that aren't their bread and butter, such as internal printing systems. Still, the Linux community needs to make sure corporate interests that become involved with Linux specifically understand who's in charge of the operating system, said John "Maddog" Hall, a long-time Linux booster. "What they want is to make sure that the commercial companies don't own Linux. The Linux community owns Linux," Hall said.

For show attendees nostalgic for the days before the corporate boom, the solution is simple. Duck around the giant Corel booth and peek behind Dell's Linux kingdom to the back left-hand corner of the show floor, to a tiny space emblematic of where it all began: the .org Pavilion, home to organisations dedicated to ensuring Linux's free future. Under the .org banner, the last remaining bastion of non-corporate types lounged in multi-hued inflatable chairs, selling $5 (£3) T-shirts to raise money, playing pinball machines (which, of course, were free) and touting the virtues of Linux to anyone wandering by.

The pavilion, set up to pay homage to the volunteer spirit that got it all started, featured 10 groups, including Linux distributor Debian.org, long-time Linux training company UniForum, and the Free Software Foundation, which has locked horns with those pushing to make Linux corporate. Though the groups aren't necessarily opposed to a business interest in Linux, they want newcomers to understand the message behind open-source software. "It's important to keep part of the focus on the fact that the people who originated the source code didn't come out of the Fortune 500 companies," said Tom Ney, managing officer of the Free Software Foundation.

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