Penguin on a Playstation

With a strong feeling of ‘Déjà vu’ I walked into Olympia 2. to chair day one of “The Great Linux Debate” for the fourth year running. To remind me if the previous years, I had my mementos with me, Bob Young’s ‘Red Hat’. The false beard that I tried wearing one year and the cuddly Penguin which had been sitting on my daughter’s bed for twelve months. Wondering what this year’s little gift would be, I walked around a show floor that seemed to reflect the times, basic shell schemes and with the companies very much the same as in previous years and with the exception of IBM and Hewlett Packard, giving a distinctly ‘geeky’ cottage industry-like feel to the event.

What did catch my eye was the Sony stand, because believe it or not, Sony have a Linux distribution for the Playstation-2, complete with hard drive, keyboard and mouse that plug into the PS2’s expansion port. Sony have been talking about making the PS2 into a home networking device for two years and this, I thought, is really big news because it brings Linux applications, such as Open office right down to the consumer level. But I was wrong. This is still very much an add-on product for programmers, students and code enthusiasts and really nothing more. It’s a big step in the right direction but only a relatively small one.

As always, the debate was short on space. An audience that extended out onto the show floor and sat on the floor of the theatre and a panel of IBM, SCO, SUSE, Debian, IBM, SUN and Hewlett Packard, squeezed up against the front wall. I did invite Microsoft but they decided that it wasn’t for them, which is a shame; because they would have learned that they didn’t have a huge amount to worry about from Linux just yet.

Starting the proceedings in the best possible taste, the organizers presented me with a pair of large comedy breasts, not the photo opportunity I was expecting but gave me an opportunity to tell the audience that this was also there opportunity to get their feelings ‘Off their chest’

At times, the argument was heated, particularly between Debian and SUSE. “What exactly is ‘Free’ software”? It was also disappointing in my view in that very little has moved on since last year. Sun of course is now playing ‘seriously’ in the Linux space but it became very obvious that the larger vendors, IBM, Sun and HP couldn’t really agree on Linux’s strengths. Yes, of course there was clustering and the ‘Edge of the Enterprise’ stuff but IBM and Sun were in opposite camps and Hewlett Packard sat on the fence and said very little. This encouraged one member of the audience to comment, that “iI wasn’t Linux that couldn’t scale, it was the vendors in trying to support it”.

The audience itself was the predictable mixture you might expect from any Open Source event. Strongly represented by the education sector, Alan Cox look-alikes and one very impressive, wonderfully opinionated ‘Gothic’ web mistress with a coffin-shaped backpack, who dominated the questioning and intimidated the panel.

It was the same old story. You want training from the evil empire, the darker side of .Net and you can find it anywhere, you can almost get an A level in it. But try and find equivalent standards and recognition around Linux and you’re ‘stuffed’. How, the audience asked the panel, are you going to solve this problem?

If the row of Linux gorillas facing the questioning, could have shuffled their feet nervously, they would have done but they were sitting down and had to concede that it would be at least another two years before we saw any big changes outside of vendor support for the platform. You see, the great thing about Linux is that it’s ‘Free’ and Open Source but the big disadvantage is that nobody is really in charge and there’s no equivalent of the Microsoft Death Star churning out volumes of Linux courseware for schools and universities. These guys are here to make money from Linux and subsidizing mass education still isn’t part of the process, which, in their minds sells boxes which is, after all, what they really care about. Whether these units are Itanium or SPARC powered.

The fudging left the audience feeling restless. These people are committed to Open Source computing, are hungry for education and information and believe that the principles they support are in danger of being hijacked by large commercial interests and they have a point. Linux remains very much a religion at a time when the large vendors wish to dress it up in a shirt and tie and offer it as a respectable Enterprise solution. There’s a clash of two cultures here which is going to make progress slow, although I would argue, that it can’t get much slower.

When the debate ended, I asked the audience to vote on which company should receive the comedy breasts for achievement and services to Linux over the past year. Almost unanimously the decision was that Simon Tindall, on behalf of Sun Microsystems, should receive this valuable award, which should now be displayed in Sun’s reception until The Great Linux Debate returns to London next year. A good result as, I’m sure you’ll agree and a sigh of relief from IBM.

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