I leaned back in the narrow seat and looked at the fabric ceiling. Outside, the setting sun peeked over the blackened top of a factory, a dark shadow of rolling smoke rising in the orange sky. I twisted to reach my camera in the back seat.
"Plastic" he said.
"The ceiling looks like fabric. It even feels like fabric, but if you pay
attention, you’ll notice it’s plastic. They cut expenses in all the right
places. It has all the power, all the efficiency, but it cost a fraction of the price."
I framed the factory and clicked the shutter. Perfect. Leaning back, I ran my fingers across the ceiling. He was right.
"Feel the plastic? Yeah. Easier to clean."
A plane passed overhead, and I took a photo of its silhouette in the deep sunset. Pollution does wonderful things to the Earth’s contrast dial.
"So, what did you think? Did you get the information you needed? What did you think about Malte?"
I thought for a moment.
"It was definitely much different than I expected."
Ahead, the cars were so many grains of sand, trickling in the daily hourglass that flows into New York City every morning then flips around and repeats it every night. It was going to be a long drive home.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect from LinuxWorld 2004. The world of GNU/Linux and open source is as diverse as our own globe. Entire ecosystems rise, compete, and fall around new technologies. Hallways full of business cubicles or coffee shops teeming with geeks can suddenly emerge into success or starve slowly until they disappear. The remaining people get reabsorbed and go on to feed the new great company, another promising project, the next tomorrow.
I pulled my hat down as Patrick and I walked out of the Copacabana’s parking lot — they rackmount the cars on hydraulic lifts to save space — two blocks from the glass facade of the Javits Center. The stiff headwind made me wish I had glasses like Patrick, even if his hornrims did make him look like a short, slightly pudgy Austin Powers.
"Linux is everywhere" I said.
"Yeah?" asked Patrick.
"IBM billboard" I explained and nodded my head toward the waterfront.
"We must be in the right place then" he replied, and opened the door.
If we weren’t sure before, we knew it was LinuxWorld as soon as we stepped in. Sure, the huge banners and walking penguin suit tipped us off, but so did the appearance of the "normal" attendees. Ecosystem? Absolutely. While Patrick arranged our passes, I took a look around. It seemed more like a geek Galapagos than a trade show, each species in distinct plumage. In one corner a knot of teenagers showed off t-shirts stamped with
#/bin/perl instead of the usual Old Navy or Abercrombie and Fitch. Nearby, a man grinned and pulled the wool hat off his marble grey hair. He stuffed it into his windbreaker and followed his excited son into the show.
"Cubicle walls age a man quicker than kids," I thought, and sauntered toward the restrooms. A few well-groomed suits walked by me, straightening their crisp beige jackets as they delivered urgent calls into their earmounted cellphones. Only a small detail, like shoulder-length hair (carefully shampooed and combed, of course) or conservatively-colored sneakers gave them away. The shoe-shiners didn’t look up from their newspapers. They weren’t going to get much business today. LinuxWorld is the only place I have ever seen a long line at the men’s restroom.
"Here you go, Nate."
Patrick handed me the badge. "Exhibitor" it read. Aside from wandering the conference, I was going to staff an exhibitor’s booth with him for part of the day.
"The conference staff are using Windows, you know," he whispered. I chuckled.
We walked onto the carpeted expo floor, past Oracle’s massive geodesic igloo, past countless blinking lights on wicked looking rackmounted servers, and into the Dot Org area of the expo. Here, small crowds gathered around the booths of exciting open source projects and nonprofit organizations.
"This is it." Patrick pointed at the OpenACS booth. I dropped my backpack behind the table and pulled out my notebook.
"We won’t need you for a while. Feel free to roam around. I’ll introduce you to Malte when you get back."
The expo floor was much smaller than I expected. Roughly half the size of a soccer field, most of the space was taken up by large corporations: IBM (Linux is Everywhere), Novell (We invest in Redhat), SGI (We sell pretty computers), Oracle (Unbreakable Linux for Grid Computing), and even Microsoft (Tools for Unix). Nearly every company built angled faux walls lined with sexy machines, like a lair, a maze leading to the center, where sales executives poised to release their pitch to unsuspecting bystanders. On the perimeter, a subtle raised carpet marked the predatory zone, and corporate employees trying to look geeky ranged as far as the edge, but now further. Step inside… and Pow! I avoided their eyes, as if they were each a head of a corporate medusa. If I looked at them, I would be frozen, stony, unable to escape until I had heard about high availability replication or the details of grid computing, or some other mixture of tech, terms, and chicken bones.
Besides, I wasn’t interested in the fastest rackmount server, the smallest laptop, or the most expensive 24/7 support. Two men in shiny white plastic DETOX suits with vacuum cleaner hoses sticking out of their backs peered at me through their thin plastic visors. Linux Antivirus? I fled to the underbrush, emerging from the crowd in front of the Hewlett Packard display.
Where were the Web companies? Nearly everyone was selling high performance servers, heavy-hitting database software, or desktop systems.
Off in a corner, I saw the friendly colors of the Google logo. Now there’s a company that has it together. I walked up and heard the end of a conversation,
"So, what are you here for?"
"Oh. Google is hiring. We thought we’d find some good people here." They looked at me awkwardly. I looked back and felt equally as awkward.
"What I want to know, is how Google does it? I mean, I use Google for everything!" someone from behind me gushed.
"Pigeons, of course!" I replied, without thinking.
A few years back, Google had posted a humorous explanation of their patented ‘Pigeon Rank’ technology . Before I had a chance to think, my brain wired directly to my mouth, and I started talking.
"The droppings are converted into all those little white pixels" It was too late to stop now, so I finished delivering Google’s self-parody.
Instead of chuckling, the Google representatives glared at me. I don’t think they knew what I was talking about. I moved on.
Back in the other corner, well-obscured, was the Free Software Foundation, the creators of the GPL license and the originators of the ideas that birthed Open Source. I donated some money and walked back to the OpenACS booth to see what Patrick was doing. He was talking to a much taller, equally-pudgy guy in khakis and a baby blue button down shirt.
"Hi, I’m Malte Sussdorff , and you are Nathan?"
His high-pitched, good-natured voice matched his round smile and unassuming, neatly-combed blond hair. I asked him about OpenACS, a toolkit for Web communities. Most sites that use OpenACS, Matle explained, don’t need to develop any code. The ACS system comes with many modules out of the box that perform most Website tasks.
OpenACS seemed like just a nicely-integrated content management system. Nothing earthshattering. Then Malte showed me DotLRN, an open source application written with OpenACS. Simple on the outside, DotLRN can manage an entire university’s internal Website needs, from signing up for classes to collaborating with professors and other students. Each student can organize a personal portal with appointments, class times, and club meetings easily at hand. Teachers and students can use DotLRN to create screen presentations, share bookmark lists, create photo galleries, chat online, keep track of class discussion, distribute news and assignments to class members, collect uploaded assignments, and even distribute grades. Revision history is tracked on nearly everything. DotLRN was funded by a number of top universities, including MIT, Cambridge, Heidleberg University, and the University of Sydney, who didn’t want to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a solution they couldn’t control. So they created DotLRN and placed it under an Open Source license so each university could customize it to their individual needs.
Next to OpenACS was Mambo, a traditional PHP/MySQL content management solution. The Mambo booth was packed with twentysomething, chic, New York Web designers sporting trendy semi-dyed hair that was styled oh-so-carefully. These kids were too sexy even for Starbucks. There was even a girl, but she stayed behind the other designers and didn’t field many questions.
"Classic booth babe," Patrick later remarked.
"Will it work on Konqueror or Apple’s Safari?" I asked the rep.
"Not completely," he replied, moving deftly to the next question. His form-fitting sweater assumed different poses as he talked. I didn’t ask him about CSS menus.
While a nifty tool, Mambo seemed to be too modular. Each feature in the software fits nicely into a layout box, but they don’t interact with each other very much. Maybe I’m being too hard. Most content management solutions are like that, but I had just seen some very tightly integrated software at the OpenACS booth, and I was hungry for more.
"Does it support version tracking on documents?"
"Well, we have our own version tracking, but if you’d like to advance on it, you can."
He started talking to the people behind me, and I moved on. In the next row of booths, a large throng crowded around a users group showing off a home-built, Linux-based Dance Dance Revolution console.
Around the corner, I came upon friendly territory, the New York PHP Users Group. Here, a diverse group of elderly, middle-aged, and teenage programmers swapped battle scars and coding tips. I talked to designers, I talked to programmers, I talked to a Web host owner.
"Hey, you ought to check out our mailing list."
"It’s pretty active. We have nearly a thousand people on the list. Here’s the address: nyphp.org"
"I’ll take a look."
"Also, we have a lot of speakers come to our meetings. Every time there’s a meeting, we upload it to our Website in MP3 format. We would welcome anyone to join in, even if you’re not from New York."
Opposite the NYPHP booth burst lively chatter from an amplifier. It looked like a radio show was interviewing open source programmers. I didn’t stop; I had one last area to check out before I returned to help Patrick.
Finding the MySQL booth was easy. I just followed the halo. Underneath a massive canvas disc circled by dolphins and the company name, the MySQL area looked like a futuristic gameshow. A curved wall on one corner proudly displayed marketing information, and wide, decorative podiums grew from the plush carpet as if connected to the corner by invisible spokes.
The podiums sported large LCD screens; there was one for each of MySQL’s strategic partners. I listened to one company’s representative talk about database clustering solutions, high availability and single points of failure. After that, I skipped the others and went right to the main MySQL podium.
"The next point release of MySQL, due in a few weeks, will offer a number of improvements, including SubQueries and Stored Procedures. There are also going to be a number of improvements to Referential Integrity within the database. MySQL Version 5, which is due in the summer, will allow in-memory databases…"
"Nice" I said.
He hardly paused. He was on a roll.
"…as well as synced databases for high availability. It will also support advanced replication features and database clustering."
"Well, that will definitely make a lot of people happy. Anything else I should expect from you guys soon?"
He directed me to a podium at the opposite corner. "Talk to one of the guys over there about the new GUI tools we’re developing."
As I walked over, I heard him tell another attendee, "No, we’re not really trying to compete with high end databases like Oracle. They have their niche, we have ours."
I chuckled. Replication and clustering comes out this summer, and they’re not trying to compete with the big boys. Yeah right.
"They told me to ask you about some new GUI tools" I asked the crisply-dressed salesman at the podium. He handed me his card, plugged his laptop into the large LCD and fumbled around for a bit. It wouldn’t boot.
"Sorry about that. That’s why we always have a backup, eh?"
The salesman touched the latch on one of the props and pulled out an Apple PowerBook. He closed the prop. Clever, I thought.
But he couldn’t seem to get the LCD to work properly.
"Do you mind if I give you a hand?" I asked and quickly helped him set up the display.
"Thanks, I don’t use a Mac too often." After all, it was LinuxWorld.
The salesman launched Windows on the Mac through VMWare, started the new MySQL Administrator software, and launched into his pitch.
"No more configuration files, if you don’t want to use them. Everything you can configure in MySQL is configurable here, from users and privileges and backups to diagnostics and statistics." I was impressed.
"The alpha for this tool should come out in early February. It’s programmed natively in both Linux and Windows, though an OS X version will follow. In fact, this is just the first of several tools."
Behind me, ten to fifteen people pressed close to hear the news. It was Friday, he had spent two days refining his talk, and he had an attentive audience. He was in the zone.
"MySQL is under contract to produce a SQL query builder and an MS Access-like graphical database layout designer by the summer. They even hired four new programmers just to work on GUI tools."
The best thing about it? Every GUI tool will be released under the GPL and will be absolutely free. He finished his pitch and turned away from me to speak to those behind me. I stood there a while, but he was focused on the crowd. The pitch was beginning again, so I left.
I looked at the title on the card: GUI Programmer. Where do they get these guys?
On my way back to the OpenACS booth, I noticed a large man with a dark blue sweatshirt, his frizzled grey hair fleeing his head in all directions, topped by a huge floppy hat. It was John Maddog Hall, one of the Sacred Kernel Developers.
I stopped to talk to him. More grandfather than geek, Maddog was the most personable soul I met all day.
"Hey, here’s my card. I have family near you. Send me an email and I’ll come talk to your Linux Users Group."
"Sure. I’m looking forward to your email. Seeya later."
I rushed to tell Patrick. As I explained, Malte heard me say something about MySQL’s new features and excused himself to see if MySQL will support features needed by OpenACS.
"I hope I didn’t offend him" Patrick said.
"I’m on the Atkins diet, right? Well, I have a tin of Vienna sausages I got at discount. I’m supposed to eat mostly protein for this diet."
"Well, I offered some of them to Malte. I thought he might be hungry. But he declined."
"Maybe he wasn’t hungry?"
"Well, he’s not from Vienna. He’s from Hamburg."
Now it was my turn to give out a pitch as I helped staff the OpenACS booth. I mumbled out references about Vertical Enterprise Solutions to business owners and told the IT staff of Rutgers University about Web application toolkits in Diverse Software Ecosystems. When I needed to know something, I nudged Patrick, who was handing out business cards like candy, drumming up business for his Web hosting company.
Then I noticed grinning techies heft bags of loot onto their shoulders (Oracle was giving away beanbag chairs) their bodies pulsing in the flashing lights of a forklift. I looked at my PDA for the time. The conference was over. As I zipped my backpack closed, Javits Center employees pulled up squares of carpet and stacked them onto rolling carts.
One by one, the glowing, blinking lights on the rackmounted servers went out. Without this crazy LED disco show, the conference floor looked drab. The last few exhibitors trundled their suitcases toward the large glass facade, and I snapped a few last photos. Patrick and I walked back into the biting wind toward the Copacabana’s. LinuxWorld was over.
We watched the attendant extract Patrick’s car from its place in the hydraulic rack. It was going to be a long drive home.