Blogging the Linux expo

I started writing this entry at the Sun Microsystems stand at the London Linux World Expo, on a pretty much state-of-the-art Sun workstation powered by two fast AMD Opteron processors. I hadn’t got far (not even a line, in fact) when I was kicked off the computer by someone who said that it was intended as a demo for their Java Desktop system. More on that later insha Allah.

I was actually not entirely certain I’d even get into the Expo (which is being held at the Olympia in Kensington; there is another day left tomorrow). When registering for a similar event last year I found a message that said that they “couldn’t accommodate” students, which is a bit of a cheek, because Linux itself was originally written by a student. This year, however, I declared that I was a student and put “n/a” (not applicable) where I was asked for my organisation, and I still got in. I registered early, and admission was free.

I was expecting there to be more, to be honest - there was one floor of exhibition stands and a hall downstairs for the so-called “Great Linux Debate”. There were stands by Novell (the software company which bought out SUSE earlier this year), Hewlett Packard (featuring Red Hat), Sun Microsystems, Sybase and various other businesses which publish or support Linux. There was something called the “.Org village”, which actually featured some of the open-source software projects on which all the Linux packages are based. The “village” was cramped, consisting of three or four narrow, short aisles. I think this is pathetic - there would be no Linux distributions without these organisations and projects.

The biggest stands went to Novell, Sun and HP. Sun was demonstrating its two “desktop” projects, Java Desktop and Looking Glass. Looking Glass is a rather gimmicky 3D interface - you can “turn round” a window, write a memo on the back of it and still read what’s on the front (backwards), and when you “minimise” a window, it sort of folds away to the side. It looks pretty, but it’s slow even on the super-fast machines they were using to demonstrate it. Java Desktop is a variant on GNOME, one of the two standard desktop systems for Linux and Unix, which you can customise a great deal more than you can with Windows (for example: see the panel with the Start menu on it? You can have two or more of them in GNOME). It is actually nothing to do with the Java language which Sun invented; it looks like this is the Java brand, rather than the Java system.

The Novell stall was more useful to me, and I was able to find out when, for example, the next edition of SUSE Linux is going to be out (early November). I also asked them if they had dispensed with the service of their German distributor which took ages to send me my last SUSE package a few months ago (they have). I was able to place a pre-order with their new (British) distributor, and they had some fliers for it. Looks like they are getting their act together. Conspicuous by their absence was Mandrake, but I don’t really miss them - their Linux system has often been unreliable.

The so-called “Great Linux Debate” was a panel discussion with questions put to representatives of IBM, the Samba project, Linux Format magazine, Novell, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard (remember that they swallowed up Compaq, who had themselves swallowed Digital) and Red Hat, and another whom I can’t remember. You’ll notice that all but two of these are corporate players, albeit one of them specialising in publishing Free Software (note the capital letters; this means freely distributable, not necessarily free of charge).

I got to ask the first question, which was (in response to a previous comment on this blog, in fact): that the main “killer application” for Windows is MS Office, and since certain companies with representatives on the panel (i.e. IBM) own office products which they acquired when they bought other companies (i.e. Lotus), why don’t they make versions of it for Linux? The reply was that IBM had made a strategic decision to concentrate on so-called middleware, i.e. equipment for the service industry. The person sitting next to me commented that this meant the office software I was referring to was unwanted, and for sale.

Other questions had to do with software patents, which the Samba project guy called an “absolute blight” on the software industry. They agreed that the US was a lost cause as far as fighting the imposition of patents is concerned, but the European Union is not, and it was necessary to fight their introduction here. One of them also said that some of the patents he had seen were incomprehensible, when patents were meant to actually publish inventions, not make them obscure. The compere remarked that the only people to benefit from software patents would be the lawyers.

There was also a question about how to wean people off Windows onto Linux. It has to be said at this point that a lot of the enthusiasm for Linux is from its users, not the companies which produce it. People who use Linux often find it so much better than Windows (or Windoze) and can’t see why anyone would use it, except for the fact that software for it is nowhere near as extensive. Someone made the point that a printer he had recently bought (by HP!) had features which could not be used with Linux, and another person said that people nowadays who saw computers usually only saw Windows, and that his daughter only saw Linux because he used it. If she was getting all her IT education from school, she wouldn’t know about Linux.

(This is an important point - in the early 1990s there were three other systems competing with the Windows PC computers, namely the Amiga, Atari ST and Archimedes. For home use and gaming, the first two were vastly better, and PCs had no street cred whatsoever, as I found out when I announced that my family had purchased an Amstrad PC1640 in 1989. I was told I should have got an Amiga, and I later found out that these people were pretty much right. In graphics and processing power terms, these computers were streets ahead of the average PC, which was more expensive.)

The use of Linux in developing countries where they can’t afford Microsoft’s prices was brought up, and this led me to try to ask another question, but the debate was ended before I had the chance. The point was this: Linux has become known for its dependence on high-power computers, and the main culprits are the X Window system, GTK and KDE. The X Window system dates from the early 1980s, when they needed a system which would let you run a program on a big machine, and use it on a little machine, because big machines cost an awful lot of money. When I was at college in Aberystwyth in the mid-1990s, I used Netscape in this way, with the program running on the central server, with me using it on the graphics workstations. Most people have absolutely no need of this facility, and it’s one aspect of “bloat” which Windows users don’t have.

Oh yes, and before I go. A huge thumbs down for Rackspace, which had a half-dressed female prancing around the exhibition for whatever reason. This company advertises on the back of Linux Format, and makes a big thing of its ultra-geekiness. Its advert on the back of the June 2004 edition, for example, has a picture of a sign on a door saying “Please turn off the lights before you leave”, accompanied with the message:

Big Rackspace in-joke. It just cracks us up. But in the old days people did, you know, leave the building. True. We just left it on the door - for laughs. But you can’t leave them - the servers - anything could happen, couldn’t it?

So, these people are ultra-geeks; the servers are their lives. Yeah right. Perhaps the female was supposed to be ironic, or something, given the geek image they put across, but they have no need to resort to such tactics given that they have the entire back of the country’s biggest selling Linux magazine. Well, it’s unlikely that I’ll need to rent a whole managed server any time soon, but if I did, before today, I might well have looked no further than Rackspace. Not anymore - I might, if I look around and find I can’t get a better deal than theirs. Then again, there were not that many Muslims in evidence at this show - I saw too others that I could tell (one a woman in hijab, one a man called Asad). So I’m sure it didn’t lose them any customers.

(No doubt some people will think me a prude, not that I care, but I’m not. I just don’t like it in my face and it’s not going to sell anything to me, not least something as vital to a business as a managed server.)

Then again, if you’re a Muslim and you’re interested in this sort of thing, this might be the best place to go. There are Linux and Unix user groups, but it seems that they often meet in pubs. I don’t know how it’s possible to discuss technology issues when you are drunk, not to mention the risk of spilling it over that laptop which cost you thousands of pounds.

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