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04/15/2004 Archived Entry: "Real World Linux 2004"

A bit of a travelogue today. I've just returned from a visit to the Real World Linux show in Toronto, so I'm in a reasonably mellow mood. It's pleasant to be able to talk face-to-face with representatives from some of the major players in the open source world: IBM, HP, Novell/SuSE, Red Hat, Apple, and Sun, and a lot of smaller local outfits as well.

I was particularly determined to seek out reps from IBM, Novell, and Red Hat, and tell them how much I and my associates appreciate the battles they are waging against SCO and on behalf of open-source software. Funny, but even in the hard-nosed world of engineering, and the "rational" market, intangibles like goodwill can play an enormous part.

Take IBM for instance. Decades ago they were the villainous "Big Blue," determined to squelch competition and keep their lock on our university's computer center. I and several fellow students opposed them on principle. Now IBM has reinvented itself, and is carrying the banner of open source in the courtroom, in national advertising, and in the marketplace. Of course they're doing this for excellent business reasons, but it has made them a lot of friends. And one of my fellow students from bygone days is now proud to be an IBM employee -- and believe me, anything that helps recruit quality tech talent has an effect on the bottom line.

Or take Apple. I still have a button from fifteen years ago that reads "Keep Your Lawyers Off My Computer," sporting the old multicolor Apple logo with big sharp teeth. Back then, Apple was launching "look and feel" lawsuits against their competitors, and in response, I vowed never to own an Apple product. Now Apple has returned to making money the old-fashioned way -- with superior products, not lawsuits -- and I'm pleased to recommend their current line of Macs. An Apple rep yesterday very kindly spent some time showing me Mac OS X, which I'd never seen before, and I must say they've done a beautiful job with it.

The Red Hat guys are feeling the flip side of this now, but are handling it well. I approached one of their marketing people, saying I had a gripe, and as soon as I got out the words "I'm a former Red Hat desktop user" he finished with "I know, we really handled that badly." (Red Hat discontinued support for their desktop products last year, leaving many customers in the lurch.) However, the chagrin was two-sided that day, as I learned that Red Hat had never made a dime from me. (I had bought a book that included Red Hat 8.0 CDs, and I had assumed that Red Hat got a percentage. Not so, I was told.) I left the booth with the sense that this was a company that had made an honest customer support mistake and regretted it. I have no lasting beef with Red Hat -- and I thanked them for their part in the SCO lawsuits -- but since they now focus on "enterprise" Linux, alas, I'll have few occasions to recommend them to friends.

Some reps from Dell were sharing the Red Hat booth, and I took the occasion to ask them -- since they were promoting Linux -- why SuSE Linux wouldn't load on one of their newest desktop systems. After some back-and-forth they decided it must have been because that system uses serial ATA, for which Linux support is still lagging. Contrary to previous info I'd heard, Dell will still sell a computer with Linux preinstalled, but you have to buy one of their higher-end workstations.

The customer feedback obligation cuts both ways: I made a point to stop at the Xandros booth, identify myself as a satisfied customer, and congratulate them for an excellent product. One chap remembered me from last year's show, and seemed pleased that the half-hour demo he did for me then caused me to buy the 1.0 product, buy the 2.0 upgrade, and recommend it to my associates. Evidently they still get some static from people who grumble "Linux should be free" (as in free beer). I told him I'm happy to pay for a good product, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be paid for their work.


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