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LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld Conference and Expo, Toronto, April 24 –26, 2006

In the server market these days Linux is pretty mainstream, so it was no surprise to see a number of major corporations represented at LinuxWorld, HP, IBM and Samsung among them. However, the show floor was dominated by Novell. They were positioned front and center with an exceptionally well-manned booth. And at the epicenter of it all was SUSE Linux of course.

The theme for the Novell booth (and the topic of the keynote given by Ross Chevalier) was, “The Year for Linux on the Corporate Desktop”. Certainly, desktop Linux was the overriding theme of the whole show, though some might want to reword it as “Linux for the Windows user.”

Arjay Royyuru unquestionably had the most interesting keynote address, “IBM – The Genographic Project”, a study of human migratory patterns through tracking genetic markers. Nice to see Linux used in this context but the technical story here was clearly overshadowed by the scientific and cultural story, judging by the questions fielded from the audience.

HP’s BDale Garvey, a longtime Debian developer, now CTO of Linux and Open Source at Hewlett-Packard, spoke on “Reaping the Benefits of the Community Development Model,” arguing that the relationship between any corporation and any specific community of open-source (OS) developers could only work if it was mutually beneficial. Corporations need to get involved because, in many cases, OS software is superior. From the user’s point of view there’s no locked in, you have a choice of support models and you get to try applications prior to adoption. Garvey turned the common criticism of OS as less secure on its head – the OS model allows you to recognize and solve problems long before they are ever exploited.

Jon “maddog” Hall, executive director of Linux International, spoke on the topic, “In Your Best Business Interest”, arguing persuasively that the real test of software is the ROI, not the total cost of ownership. I couldn’t help but imagine that the conference organizers viewed his nickname as “unfortunate” – a throwback to the earlier days of Linux. It doubtless dissuaded the more timorous IT managers from attending his keynote address and certainly no one in the audience seemed to fit that description. They certainly missed an informative and entertaining talk. “Maddog” dismissed common myths associated with the use of open-source software, arguing that there’s no vendor lock-in and that no company can adequately deal with all the support requests for packaged proprietary software. The only adequate support model is the open-source one.

The show themes were also reflected in the seminars and tutorials.

“Cross Platform Development with Mono” by Kevin Shockey and Joseph Hill presented a tool that allows conversion of applications created using C# under Windows to the Linux platform or development of C# applications under Linux.

Some of the applications developed using Mono were being promoted by Novell, including the desktop search application, beagle and f-stop, a photo manipulation program. I guess this is no surprise since Mono is part of Ximian, acquired by Novell in 2003.

To some people such applications may hardly seem worth mentioning. But it is the ability to perform common tasks easily or even just the look and feel of an application that can be a stumbling block to the adoption of Linux. It’s these very issues that have thwarted my own personal campaign to move my household to the Linux desktop. Yes, Gaim works but it doesn’t have this or that option available in MS Messenger or “I don’t like the fonts in Open Office.” Trivial issues perhaps, but ones that users commonly raise.

In any case, Mono is now included by default with most Linux distributions and version 1.2 is due shortly.

“Demystifying Linux Distributions”, given by Dee Ann LeBlanc was obviously aimed at Linux newbies and gave a good overview of the relative strengths of the different distributions. This provided a good opportunity to observe Windows users investigating Linux. Judging by their questions, they seemed to have a good grasp of the issues. However, criticism of the Windows operating system prompted one participant to become defensive and, shortly thereafter, leave.

Open Standards Desktop presentations ran on the show floor throughout and were well attended. Among the presenters was Waldo Bastian (of SUSE Linux and KDE) speaking about Linux Standards Base (LSB). This initiative would clearly benefit Windows users migrating to Linux but would also be helpful in eliminating some of those annoyances that arise when you change distributions. More importantly though, fear of a repeat of the Unix wars and the development of proprietary Linuxes seems to be the underlying motivation behind LSB. Jon “maddog” Hall and Jim Zemlin also took part in these presentations.

Not surprisingly, there was definitely a SUSE Linux flavor to the show and a bewildering number of pronunciations of that distribution. Is it a Greek god or the diminutive for that girl down the street? No-one was dogmatic about it. Novell would have you believe it’s as demure and easygoing as “Susie” but as powerful as the god of thunder -- time will tell.

We’ll also see whether this really is the year of Linux on the desktop. Accommodating the Windows user by making the Linux desktop more accessible is perhaps inevitable and I suppose converting Windows users has always been one of the goals of Linux, but the warning “Be careful what you wish for” does seem to have some bearing.

In many ways it’s irrelevant whether Windows users do adopt Linux (though certainly not for Novell) but let’s hope that accommodation doesn’t mean that users have to abandon the blue screen of death as a screen saver and that “maddog” should lose his nickname.

About the Author

Peter Lavin runs a Web Design/Development firm in Toronto, Canada. He has been published in a number of magazines and online sites, including UnixReview.com, php|architect and International PHP Magazine. He is a contributor to the recently published O'Reilly book, PHP Hacks and is also the author of Object Oriented PHP, published by No Starch Press.

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