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Famine, FUD in San Jose
LinuxWorld Expo Report, August 1999


 
Milling around outside suite 1426 of the Hilton, waiting to talk to the CEO of VA Linux Systems, Dr. Larry Augustin

"Can you just let us in, let us just drop this stuff off?"



Metrowerks marketing manager gets suspicious

"That's one hell of a bag. You carry that around all day?"



Icaza talks about GNOME's component system
"The funny thing is, the GNOME component system is based on Microsoft technology."



Tuesday night is an evening of madness: Slashdot party has cafeteria pizza heated by Sterno; IDG rents pool hall, free drinks there too; GNU rents The Children's Museum, Welcome to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

"No, the free acid is at the other end of the hall."



Eric Raymond denies being a communist, destroys the journalists' microphone, says RedHat is "toast" if they misbehave.



Malda brandishes toy dart gun, threatens journalist

"Don't talk to 'my people' talk to me." 


by Curtis Lee Fulton

"Can you just let us in, let us just drop this stuff off?" one of the workers was saying. Stephen Fromm and I were in San Jose, milling around outside suite 1426 of the Hilton, waiting to talk to the CEO of VA Linux Systems, Dr. Larry Augustin. I could see the Adobe headquarters through a hall window.

Fromm was my photographer. He stared at the maid and the workers and then looked at me and shrugged.

"Look, you can watch," continued the workers, "we just need to drop this stuff off inside. Otherwise we'll have to haul it back downstairs and put it back in the van." The maid silently complied, opened the door, and watched with her hands on her hips as the two workers slid a chest-high stack of white boxes into the suite.

We were at the LinuxWorld Expo to collect footage for the indie documentary, The Evolution of Linux

My hotel for the week was a smelly dorm room at San Jose State.  The phone wouldn't even dial out--  I had to use a calling card to make local calls. I needed a place to jack in my modem for a laptop I had borrowed, but the phone was attached directly to the jack, and protected by some plastic housing.  The phone was made to detach, but only with a key.  One day I pried the junker apart, and luckily the plastic was flexible enough to just pop off the locking mechanism without snapping. 

But it turned out to be a digital phone.  When I dialed the modem I sent a blast of raw analog juice through the fragile circuitry of the phone, decimating the thing.  It used to have a little red light blinking on it, but it went dark the second I clicked on the "connect" icon. . . 

So I had to make calls from a pay phone in the lobby.  But the pay phone was useless too.  The circuits were crossed with another phone, and I could hear people talking and dialing as loud as I could hear the person I was attempting to talk to. 

Augustin was our first scheduled interview. VA makes servers specifically designed to run GNU/Linux, and the private company had recently purchased the linux.com domain for several million. VA had more then doubled their revenue since last quarter, but all I wanted was to get Augustin on tape explaining the strategy behind purchasing the domain.

Augustin showed up ten minutes after the box people left. No dice on the linux.com question. I asked it three different times in three different ways but got the same answer: helping maintain linux.com strengthens the community, which therefore strengthens VA. Finally, after asking the question for the third time, VA's PR director Brian Ritchie interrupted, "I should also mention, and maybe Larry could expound on this, that VA was not the only bidder for linux.com. . . ."

"That was my next question," I interrupted. But Ritchie was right. Microsoft had offered at least one million for the domain.

On Tuesday I talked with Greg Galanos of Metrowerks. While Galanos, his PR team and I walked from the display floor down to the press room, one PR man kept asking odd questions.  "That's one hell of a bag. You carry that around all day?" and  "how are your feet? You need those thick soles to keep your feet from getting tired I bet." And after asking for the fifth time, "Now who are you with?" Fromm and I were finally able to sit down with Galanos and ask some questions ourselves.

Galanos talked about the phenomena of "technical discontinuity," which is the situation where promising new hardware enters the market and software vendors suddenly have to port or rewrite applications for the new platform. Galanos said Metrowerks was able to use the technical discontinuity that existed when Apple upgraded processors for Macintoshes. "We went from about zero percent market share in January of '94 to 100% market share in '97," said Galanos, "which shows that when there are technical discontinuities in the marketplace if you can hit the point of discontinuity before the competition that you can actually take over the market for the foreseeable future."

Galanos claims that Metrowerks is applying the lesson to GNU/Linux. "We view Linux as being a significant technical discontinuity," said Galanos, "where a lot of companies, developers and engineers are saying we want to move off proprietary operating systems and we want to go to an operating system where everybody has access to the source code and they can take it wherever they want."

Michual de Icaza talked mostly about the foundation of the GNOME project. It turns out that the majority of the stuff the GNOME people have been working on is a component system, a library of pieces that can work together abstractly to create a piece of software. "The funny thing is," said Icaza, "the GNOME component system is based on Microsoft technology."

Icaza claims that an Adobe illustrator import filter with a source code of about 700 lines was written in less then a week using the GNOME component system.

The Slashdot/Andover.net party began immediately after Torvalds gave his keynote. Giant vats of cafeteria pizza sat on brick platforms heated by smoldering cans of Sterno. The techno started and Stallman rushed the dance floor and began gyrating wildly. I had some drinks and Fromm and I cruised to the IDG private bash that was held in a rented pool hall.

The whole bar was free, and I had some pear cider. But things were too subdued, so we cruised to the GNU party at the Children's Museum. The San Jose Children's Museum is filled with odd gadgets and machines, such as a pair of authentic street lights somehow connected to a drum machine.

Upstairs was an exact replica of the Mr. Roger's Neighborhood stage set, complete with a piano and the theme song piped in from a hidden tape player. It was weird wandering through this childhood flashback with a beer in my hand. Someone joked about about Stallman passing out acid at the front door. "No," said one guest, "the free acid is at the other end of the hall."

Raymond was a bit cranky when we met him, perhaps because he didn't get enough sleep after the wild GNU party. The interview went well but I think I upset him when I asked if he was a communist. Of course I knew he wasn't a communist. . . but we journalists have to ask dumb questions on occasion in order to get a decent quote.

"What happens if RedHat goes AWOL," I asked, "What happens if they turn truly evil?" "Then they're toast," said Raymond, "they're history. The entire development staff would quit."

He was so relieved when the interview was over that he ripped the microphone off his collar, muttered "thanks," and bolted out the door and down the hall, leaving his baseball cap behind.

Things got uncomfortable when Malda dissed us for the second time.  Sitting on a fluorescent-pink inflatable couch, Malda explained his evaporation from his post seconds before our scheduled meeting earlier that morning.  "Don't talk to 'my people' talk to me," Malda said, pointing a toy dart gun at the photographer Stephen Fromm. "I don't keep schedules, you'll just have to talk to me when I'm not talking to someone else. Don't listen to my PR firm."

"Your people are scheduling your interviews," I had just told him, "whether you like it or not."

It was true. Last week I had been emailed two press releases from Malda's PR firm pimping him as an "underground guide to the Linux counterculture."

What?

The release continued, "so you want the inside scoop on the open source community, but you don't know a Linux kernel from a bag of Orville Reddenbacher. . ."

"Why not?" I had thought, "I should ask him for opinions on the Internet age of journalism." So I requested an interview, and they faxed me a confirmation a few days later: Tuesday, 10 am.

I glanced at a color-copy of the Malda Rolling Stone story, which was laminated and posted outside Malda's Slashdot.org station. Had the $1 million buy-out of Slashdot.org turned Malda into a rotten brat?

"When can we do this?" I asked Malda, "this interview is important to the integrity of this documentary."

"You'll just have to talk to me when I'm not talking to anyone else," said Malda, "I'm very busy. There's a lot of Slashdot readers that come by that I need to talk to."

I approached Malda several more times throughout the week at the Expo, but continued to get the cold shoulder.

Thursday morning I saw him in the second-floor Expo lobby.

"Hey Malda," I asked, "how's it going at the booth?"

"It's OK," he said, and mumbled something about the toys and props back at the Slashdot station.

"Kinda weird," I said.

"Yeah." He shrugged, "it is weird."

"So how does your schedule look this afternoon?" I asked.

"I don't know, but not as busy. Stop buy and I might have time."

Later that after noon we lugged our equipment back to the Slashdot station. "OK Malda," I said, "this is your last chance to get in our
documentary."

"Let's do it," said Malda, not looking up from his Sony VAIO.

Thursday evening there was a party in a rented-out dance club.  Roughly around midnight the techno stopped and 12 hand drummers and eight belly dancers paraded onto the floor.  The drummers started groovin' and the dancers shook their asses and clapped finger cymbals.  It was amazing how loud it was.  I spotted a PR guy that I recognized.  His company was throwing this party.

"Was this kinky shit your idea," I asked, laughing and pointed to the dancers.

"No," he grinned, "But I like it!"

San Jose, CA, August 13-- With a black leather bag full of press kits, CEO's business cards and seven hours worth of interviews and Expo footage captured on DV cartridges, no one can say we left empty handed. I'm certain I've gained several pounds from the complimentary croissant sandwiches and the massive mound of cheddar, jack and swiss cheese offered in the press room.

But I'm also left with more questions then I came here with. Wandering around the Expo, I can see people closing up shop. A parade of semi-trucks sneaks around the San Jose convention, getting ready to load up and ship out.

Shows over folks! Glad you made, see 'ya next year. But before you go, don't forget to sign up for our mailing list. . . .

It's easy to imagine the conflict here between the corporate cash and the promised freedom of GNU/Linux. The idea of the "was-once-pure-but-defiled-by-corporate-greed" is practically a knee-jerk reaction. Gen-Xers know the story so well that it has been abstracted to a near fact, or a law of nature. Who hasn't watched a favorite band go straight down the tubes after signing on with a big label?

I'm still clinging to my hunch that GNU/Linux is different, because it's a frontier. America thrived because people were given the freedom to explore new ways of making money. But at the same time, the gatekeepers, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King to the ACLU, ensured that American citizens' freedoms would grow as well. America was able to develop a solid economic foundation, which supported her revolutionary visions of freedom.

My hunch is that GNU/Linux can do the same, if people don't forget their roots.

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