Spring Comdex 99/Linux Global Summit
April 19th, dawned to be a foggy morning. The FNAL dorm room where I stayed left me with two hand sized towels which made it rather difficult to dry off after my shower. (What do you expect for $17.50.) By the time I hit the road to drive into Chicago, it was 7:20am. Fine, this should give me plenty of time to catch Bill Gates, at 9am, deliver his keynote. WRONG! As I crossed over the over pass which would lead me onto the I88 entrance ramp, I saw this huge traffic jam. It was a parking lot of cars lined up to the horizon. I inched my way onto I88 heading east, found a good radio station, and lost myself on morning talk radio dialogue.
I didn't arrive to McCormick Place, the site of the show, until 9:20am. It took me about half an hour the day before to traverse the same route. My first observation of the convention center was that it was Huge; Vast. I jumped out of my car in one of the many vast McCormick Place parking lots, and followed the flow of people into the east building, a large black monolith looking box. (Your free to make your own association, but yes, Bill was giving his key note in this ominous huge black monolith looking building.) After walking several hundred yards down some long corridor, I came across the entrance to the Arie Crown theater, where Bill was speaking. Some lady, looking to take a poll, told me the auditorium was closed and I had to go to the overflow rooms. After searching around for about 10 minutes, I found the overflow in the North building, across interstate 40, (I tell you this convention center is big) in some rooms on the fourth floor. I managed to squeeze into one. It was a meeting room which sat about 100 people. Most of the chairs were full and I found a spot against the wall where I could listen to the tail end of Bill Gate's Windows 2000 deliverance.
Bill was promoting Windows 2000. And he was doing so with all the marketing power our free enterprise society has to offer. I know I would have gotten a much better show in the auditorium, but alas, I was delegated to this remote room, to watch Bill on a fuzzy screen, as he watched his developers show off the latest and greatest features of Windows 2000. As I started to tune into Bill's keynote, the developer was showing off some kind of office administration tools which will be part of Windows 2000. The feature was that if you click on some application icon, and the software was not installed, boom, it would automatically get installed by dragging it over the network. If you deleted some of those important dll files, as it seems is a common thing for windows users to do, when they are looking to free up needed disk space, instead of the application bombing because it needed those DLL's, the DLL's are pulled right back over the network and reinstalled. Vuala, users are free to destroy files on a whim, and Bill will make sure you can still run your MS office suite. (Hmmm... what happens if there is not enough disk space to reload the DLL files...)
I must say I was rather impressed by this one woman who was sitting down in front of me. I would say she was in her early 20's. She was rather giddy about all this MS hoopla. Towards the end of the keynote, a large stage prop was rolled out. It held 9 large video monitors. It was showing off the multi-head capability of Windows 2000. Running across all 9 monitors, arranged in a 3x3 matrix, was some screen saver graphic. The developer, killed the screen save by moving the mouse around, revealing a couple of windowed apps. He then dragged one of the windows around, and you could see how it moved from one monitor to another. He moved it to the top left and bottom right clicked on the window so that he could resize it. In doing so, the window grew large enough to cover 4 of the 9 monitors. As this developer was showing this off, this twenty-something woman got really giddy and clapped her hands together in excitement. Good grief, I guess the MS marketing department did their homework in Comdex demographics. How to impress the crowd with gimmickry.
The keynote ended, as I guess all computer show keynotes do. The CEO, CIO, President or whoever briskly walks off the stage, while some promotional video, in characteristic, "I'll blow your mind away with this awesome electronic music/rapid pace computer imagery", displaying on the overhead monitors. No "one to one" interaction with the audience, no questions and answers, and certainly no spontaneity. Actually, now that I remember back to the Fall Internet 98 show, the keynote speakers, even the CEO of AT&T, stood around taking questions, getting pictures taken and signing autographs for the people who clustered around them at the front of the stage. None of this with Bill though.
As I walked out of the room, I emerged into this river of people. Massive. There must have been about 1000 people around my immediate proximity trying to get down to the third floor, where the show floor was located. It looked like all meeting rooms, adjacent to each other where I was, were over flow rooms and all were filled to capacity. To get down, one had to walk about 50 yards down one balcony corridor, cross over a bridge to the other side of the building, and down some stairs. The pace of the people walking over towards the bridge to get to the other side, was miserably slow. (Just like trying to get into Chicago on I88). So I took off in the opposite direction where there was a single elevator which would fit about 10 people. After waiting for 3 elevator fulls, I was able to catch a ride down to the 3rd floor. I crossed over a different bridge to the South side of the complex as I was walking towards this lone elevator and in doing so, saw the main hall heading over to the east side of the complex, where the Arie Theater is located. People were coming through it to get over to the show floor. It was a massive river of people. Arie auditorium must have been packed. I could hear people around awe at the site of such masses.
So far, I had not had any breakfast and there was no time for it. It was about 10pm, and Linus's Linux Global Summit Keynote was next, starting at 10:30am. It was to be held in Room N133. It was impossible to find without some rather complicated directions from an official show attendant. They wore green vests with a big question mark on the front and back. There was another chap along with me looking for N133 as well. After getting directions, we both walked together, helping each other out trying to find the room. Down hidden escalators, around odd corners, down more hidden escalators, and finally to a remote hall with a bunch of conference rooms each sitting about 75 people. N133 was the one at the back. As we both approached, there was a sign saying that Linus's Keynote was moved to N228. Back up the hidden staircase, and over to some other not so hidden meeting room.
There was a lot of activity around the doors to N228. People were saying, "Standing room only". I got in and it was packed. Damn these urban computer conventions. Traffic jams, rivers of people, and now this packed room. I started to walk around the isles hoping for the remote possibility of an empty seat. No chance. I walked up to the front of the room and there to my left, just off the center isle, was Mad Dog, Linus, his wife and two children. This flush feeling came over me again, I grabbed my camera and was getting ready to snap away. "Linus it's me, Steve, from Fermi Lab, remember???". Snap, Snap, Snap, Snap. Well, fortunately, that scene did not play out. There was a show attendant, who saw me trying to get a good angle to take my first shot, and promptly stopped me. "We appreciate that you reserver you pictures for after the speech." He said in a calm voice. I'm having a hard time focusing here. "Yea, OK" I manage to reply. A beautiful photo op for slashdot stifled. He wouldn't even let me walk in front of Linus as I was trying to get a seat on the opposite wall. I'm sure I'm not the first one to loose his senses around Linus. After getting into the habit of writing up these conference experiences, and getting them posted on slashdot, Linux Today, Linux Gazette, Linux Weekly News, I was feeling the need at the time to try and get some really good shots to accompany this Comdex write up. I was loosing perspective as I was trying to take some snaps of Linus. Linus, if your reading this, please forgive my silliness.
In any case, I managed to find about 10 square inches on the front left isle floor. On the screen was a projection of Linus's laptop running what looked like a 5.x vintage redhat install, with Applix doing the work of showing his slides. As the crowd was getting ready to listen to the keynote, a spontaneous effort was started to try and get a wave going. The front row, reserved for the Linux devotees, (all were young guys, with pony tails), started standing up, raising their hands in a sequence which you see at sporting events. The Wave thing. They tried about three times to get the whole audience to Wave with them, but the joke petered out rather quickly. At the time this was going on, this very sleek, Ziff Davis exec, takes the floor and starts to introduce Linus. I can't remember what he said, but he ended up introducing Mad Dog, who in turn introduced Linus, just like at the Fermi Lab talk. Mad Dog's introduction was much the same as the one he gave at FNAL. The one difference is that Mad Dog gave Linus this really cool wooden object he picked up while traveling through out the far east while attending another Linux convention. I think it was Hong Kong. Out east, (far east that is), people have stamps which they use as an identity print. We sign our names using pens, they stamp an imprint of some kanji symbol. What Mad Dog managed to do was pick one up which had the kanji symbol for something on the order of king penguin. I managed to get a look at it from where I sat. It looked like a rather elegant hand carved wooden cylinder.
With that, Mad Dog got off the stage and Linus came up. He was going over his slides he showed at the Linux Expo which was recently held in San Jose. He said he didn't want to give the same talk again and opted for the FNAL style talk of questions and answers. He did start out by going over the first couple of slides. One of the first ones was a thank you slide to all those who have contributed to the kernel. Clearly Linus does not take all the credit for the Linux source and his first or second slide was a dedication to those who helped write it. He then had a slide about the 2.2 kernel and others which I can't remember now. (I couldn't take out my laptop and take notes on my 10in x 10in parcel of real estate I managed to stake out.) While he was going on about the Linux kernel, the lights started to flash in the room. Linus exclaims "Even the lights are controlled my Microsoft" or something to that extent. The lights flashed again later during the talk and some other "Microsoft controls all" statement was made. After the first 2 or 3 slides are shown, Linus starts answering random questions from the audience. The questions were much the same as the ones asked at FNAL. The "What do you do at Transmeta?" question was denied. "What do you think about the name change to GNU/Linux?". Linus didn't like that. "Have you heard of the Hurd?". He has but thinks it's designed to the 100% theoretical limit and will probably never be implemented. The questions went on for about an hour, he managed to show a couple more of his slides and then time was up.
I got to my feet and approached Linus to try and get a picture. He was surrounded by a lot of guys wanting his autograph. (No girls throwing their underwear...) I managed to get a couple of photographs but didn't try to catch his attention. He didn't need some goofy physicist tell him all over again what a great job he has done. This is quite obvious by the crowd of guys trying to get his autograph. For the few minutes I stuck around, Linus never denied anyone an autograph. There may be the day when a room seating 500, holding 600, will be a small crowd and Linus just won't be physically able to sign autographs anymore. That day may come sooner that we think.
I was quite privileged to be able to come to Comdex and see Bill, at least on a screen, and Linus in person, back to back. The contrasts are obvious. Bill works behind the facade of a large marketing and PR machinery which has built up around his success in cornering the desktop. He is truly behind walls. The fact that I could only see him on a screen and I could see Linus live is a striking metaphor for the contrast between the two. Linus, both at the Linux Global Summit
and at FNAL, opted to stay away from prepare speeches, and take on the audience with technical questions about his work. And Linus does not take credit for the whole Linux phenomena. He is quick to mention that he is just a small cog in the big Internet development machine which gave rise to the open source/free software model, GNU, Linux and the distributions which have grown out of it. From out here, or from within the overflow room, Bill is a one man show. As far as I can tell, he is the chieffo, the king of Redmond, who through is own capacity has been able to take over 90% of the desktops around the world. At least that is what his marketing department leads me to think. I know the truth is far from that.
Now that the two big keynotes were over with, I entertained the idea of hitting the road to the airport and flying back to Long Island. Checking out the agenda for the rest of the Linux Global Summit, I decided to hang on. It's kind of lonely to walk around a big show by yourself. I got lunch, (I was starving by now and I had a really bad caffeen headache), which consisted of a rather large grilled turkey sandwich, and a coke. $12.50! It was better than the 10 bucks I payed for a truly ordinary ham sandwich and a drink I had back at the Javitz Center in NYC. Before going to this conference restaurant, I checked if there was a local hot dog vendor outside the conference building. No chance. Anyway, after feeding myself, I went back to N228, site of Linus's talk, and found John Mad Dog, wrapping up his Linux 101 session. I sat in for the rest of that. It was the usual, "you can do word processing in Linux, and you don't need MS word" type talk. It was a basic Linux de-FUDing session.
Once Mad Dog's talk was over, I headed over to the entrance to the show floor. It was a massive show floor with some massive marketing props to fill the space. I opted not to go in, and instead I got in line for my $3.50 double shot capuccino. I really needed the caffeen fix. I remember some power panel sessions, which were open to all conference attendees and thought I would go catch one. I headed back over to the Arie Theater, nursing my rather good cup of capuccino. As I got there, it turned out that Bill was giving another presentation. Some kind of Microsoft Insiders talk. I thought I needed to have payed the $1500 for the executives conference to attend this, but the guy at the door told me, "Bill's on, go in and see him. But you can't take that coffee with you. Take a couple of sips and throw the rest away." "That's a 3 dollar cup of coffee!" I reply. So I stood there, gulping down the 3/4's which remained and then headed in to listen to the man himself.
The Arie theater gave me that feeling of Disneyland high tech. It is vast. It has this space age looking tiling adorning the sides of the theater. There was a very large speaker system hanging on the ceiling at the top front of the stage. There were 3 clusters of them, each having about 6 very big speakers. Designed for those techno high tech industry promotional videos? The seating on the stage floor of the theater was about 2/3rds full. I got down as close as I could, such that I may be able to take a picture. And there was Bill. The real thing. I quickly took out my notebook, and started to write down some notes.
Bill, as all of you know, is a tall lanky guy. He was wearing a brown sweater and grey slacks, no tie. He stood behind one of these Disneyland space age looking podium, with Microsoft written across it, delivering a rather prepared speech. He has a tendency to use his hands which boasts rather long fingers to emphasize a point. He hunches over a bit and talks with a nasal tone. I really hate to write this, but the fact of the matter is, if Bill gates were 20 years old today, he would be hacking away at the Linux kernel. His whole body language moved to the tune of the "computer nerd syndrome". I'm one myself, and talk with the same kind of nasal tone. I guess it takes one to one know one and Bill is defiantly of our breed. I'm sure to get flamed for writing this. The fact is that Bill was at the right place at the right time before the Internet existed and he ended up where he is now, partly because of happenstance, partly because of the marketing infrastructure he has built around himself and partly because of his drive to do what he does best. Write BASIC compilers for DOS? (Something is very wrong here....)
After a few minutes, I was able to tune into his talk. It was about MS and the Internet. This started to annoy me. I could see his marketing establishment at work, trying to change the perception of the general public as to the origin of the Internet. (Stalin had a fierce propaganda machine hard at work changing historical facts to suit the dictator. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.) Redmond is right on board with the Internet phenomena, as are the rest of us. And they have many billions in the bank to help them capitalize on this phenomena. He talked about how MS joined up with some PC company, DELL I think, and setup a web site in Germany and France. He claimed that 15 minutes after the French unadvertised web site was open for business, a PC was sold. The same happened for the German one. The way he was presenting these facts, he was making it sound like a Microsoft thing. Sorry Bill, this is no Microsoft magic. This is Internet magic. And Bill, quit trying to take credit for it. Anyone could have setup that web site and 15 minutes later the same PC would have been sold. It has nothing to do with your software. He continued to talk about Internet demographics. The US is 30% online, Europe 5% online and other smaller percentages around the rest of the world. The general tone was how MS was going to enable the Internet for the business user. After about 10 minutes of this "MS is the Internet" talk, Bill stopped talking and showed a video.
The theme of this video was, what does the stranger on the street think of the Internet. It starts off with Jay Leno, holding a microphone, going around asking the "casual stranger", what they think or know about the Internet. One young woman ponders, "The Internet must be this big computer sitting in Bill Gates house." I heard this and almost died. Bill, let me tell you one more time, you had nothing to do with the Internet and stop trying to take credit for it!!! The video was clearly for fun. There was a scene where Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were driving a car, each wearing a Disco outfit, grooving to music on the radio. They are both in the front seat of the car, moving their heads side to side in rhythm with the music they were grooving too. There was a scene with George Lucas trying to get some "hackers" to dance to some music. They (the hackers) were all out of tune and just couldn't get it. Lucas tells them to remember the time when they had just finished compiling 3,000,000 lines of code for some huge SMP machine and the app ran flawlessly. With that, the hackers strike up a professional modern dance with a really fast, really cool choreography, at some fast paced techno tempo. This video goes on for about 15 minutes. After which Bill concludes his talk by "committing to 99.9% uptime on WinNT Server 4.0".
Now something starts which I didn't expect. A question and answer period. A marketing exec for Ziff Davis comes out and sits with Bill to go over some questions from the "Microsoft Insiders". This exec has a list of questions, from what I assume, are a random set of people. These people being "Microsoft Insiders", who ever they are. The only question I remember was the one asking what Bill thought of the Linux threat. (Of course I was going to remember that question.) Bill's answer was, that Linux was competition and that Microsoft was up to competition. He then starts off on a tangent about how his own installed base is a competition and elaborates on that for about 5 minutes. He never mentioned Linux again.
After that session was over, I went back to the capuccino stand and blew another 3 bucks on some more needed caffeen. I checked the schedule and noticed that some more Linux talks were going on. (I've lost track of time by now. Its getting on towards 3pm I think.) I go down to the well hidden conference room, N133 to find Mad Dog working up some more de-FUDing talk for the audience. I go over to the front row and settle down for the rest of his talk. As he was going over Linux facts I was all too familiar with, I noticed a bright sparkle of light flashing my way from Mad Dog's head. I take a harder look and see that flash again as his head rotates a bit. This time, I clearly see the flash coming from his lower left ear lobe. So there you have it. Mad Dog sports a very subtle but elegant diamond stud. Being a physicist, I tend to catch these kind of details. Always looking for a discovery.
The next session had three talks. One on the Linux standard base, one on application porting strategies and one on architectures supported by Linux. Tim Jones, of EST was not there to give his porting talk, so the audience voted to start with the Linux Standards Base talk. This was given by Daniel Quinlan who heads up the project. The basic emphasis of his talk was that yes, there was an effort on going right now to document a set of standards for Linux. It will take the form of a documented specification first, some other step after that, and finally an example implementation if time permits. The emphasis would be on the written document spec'ing the standard. The standard will be developed from existing implementation. For that, the LSB project has taken a lot from some Debian document and has almost completed the crontab standard. (They took the crontab standard straight out of this Debian document.) The plan is to have a first version in about 6 months.
After Daniel, Maurice Hilarious, started off the talk on different architectures on which Linux runs. He emphasized that Linux is now decoupling a platform from its operating system. Right now, if you buy an SGI platform, you get Irix. If you buy a Sparc, you get solaris and so on. With Linux, you can buy any number of platforms and run Linux on it. I call this platform freedom. Linux is the only OS which I know has been able to achieve this. (The embedded market isn't quite a comparison, but perhaps an arguable exception.) Maurice is a Canadian through and through. When he mentions a dollar amount, he refers to it as US dollars. Canadians have to do this of course. He struck me as a quick witted risk taking Canadian who as done well selling Linux boxes and is a believer in what he does. I must say that he did remind me of a Canadian version of Bill Mury, but that's besides the point. After Maurice, a guy from Sun got up to speak about the Linux port to Sun platforms. His talk basically covered the fact that yes, you can run Linux on all sorts of sparc and ultrasparc platforms. I asked him or someone asked him at some point, what Scott McNealy thought about allowing resources to be spent helping Linux be ported to the sparc and ultrasparc. It turns out that Scott sees the inevitability of the Linux port and may as well assist than hinder it. So he approved of the resource committed within Sun. Sun has not committed a lot of resources to this effort, mind you. I think the effort involves 2 or 3 people at this time. The main developer, as I understood it, is some guy in Czechoslovakia.
After the talk ended, it was getting time for the Linux reception. It was being held in N228. It took a bit to learn were it was being held. No one in the conference room which just heard the Linux on sparc talk knew where the reception was being held. Alas, we all found the room and were delighted to find a very nice spread of food and alcohol. The reception was sponsored by Caldera. About an hour after the reception started, Linus, his wife, kids and Mad Dog came in. I was standing around, talking with someone when I saw Linus come in. Again, that strange urge to pull out my camera and start taking pictures came over me. I held back. I realized that Linus and his family need the same kind of respect for their privacy as the rest of us do. I stayed back and let the Linus, and Mad Dog scene unfold for itself with out my intervention. They took up seats next to a podium at the back of the room. A while later, an awards ceremony started. An oriental looking guy, who I believe is one of the founders of Caldera got up with Mad Dog to deliver an award which was given to Linus at CeBIT. Linus got up, holding his two children. He had to let one down, and walked over to take it. I took a picture of him taking the award. Everyone else was. After the award thing was over, I stuck around a bit longer and finally decided to call it quits. I still had to check into my hotel, call the wife, find dinner and try and get some sleep.
- Spring Comdex 99 Write up, Day2.
- Back to Linus's talk at FNAL.
- Back to the main page.
- Photos of the Linux Pavilion
Authored by Stephen Adler
Copyright 1999, Stephen Adler