Originally Published: Friday, 23 March 2001 Author: Robin Miller
Published to: interact_articles_lugs/Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

LUG Takes Linux to Federal Computer Show Without Corporate Help

Linux company stocks are down, but Linux use continues to spread, in large part because Linux Users Groups keep evangelizing with or without corporate support. NoVaLUG's recent presence at the 2001 edition of the major federal computer show, FOSE, shows why volunteers, not companies, are the heart of Linux.

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Linux company stocks are down, but Linux use continues to spread, in large part because Linux Users Groups keep evangelizing with or without corporate support. NoVaLUG's recent presence at the 2001 edition of the major federal computer show, FOSE, shows why volunteers, not companies, are the heart of Linux.

FOSE, held annually in Washington DC, is the largest computer and technology show aimed specifically at federal government employees. Its attendees are primarily office workers and managers, not hard-core techies. In 2000, six Linux companies had FOSE booths, but in 2001 Mission Critical Linux was the only Linux-specific vendor there. This didn't matter to the volunteers from NoVaLUG and DCLUG who staffed the Linux community booth. They were there out of love for Linux, to spread the word among the heathen, not to meet sales goals. And no matter what the economy is like next year, they hope to be back again.

NoVaLUG member Tim Bogart organized the effort. He says he did it because, "I don't code. I felt a need to contribute and so I used what talents and resources I had available to try and do something for the Linux community. That's where it comes from. It's simply a matter of gratitude for services rendered. I'm a true penguin. Since introduction, I haven't used anything but Linux at work or at home for more than 2 years. I love Linux."

Not a single person at any of the FOSE commercial booths -- most of which were selling Windows-oriented products - said anything like this. They were all there because they were getting paid, not out of community spirit, and community spirit is what makes even the most humble LUG booth stand out at a non-Linux trade show or expo. Taking the Linux message to people who might otherwise never hear of Linux, and showing them that Linux users are some of the kindest and most helpful people on the face of the earth, is as essential as creating code in the long run, and it is something that takes no great technical expertise to do.

But Linux advocacy is more than generosity. It feels good, too. Brian Bayus, another Linux volunteer at FOSE, says, "They flocked to our humble booth among the many others so much more exciting and lavish. They asked what we had to sell them and were surprised and puzzled that what we had to give them was free. Although it does have a tangible manifestation, an operating system, it is really an idea, a different approach to making technology work for mankind rather than mankind being technologies servant. This is all we had to give and they sought us out and took every scrap of material we had indicating how they could learn more."

In the middle of all the "corporate" Linux news, it is easy to forget that people like Tim and Brian, along with his fellow booth volunteers Maury Merkin, Justin Swain, Billy Ball, and too many others to list here, are not only out there and going strong, but that they are as much a part of Linux as the kernel developers. VA Linux [Linux.com's owner], IBM, Red Hat, and other members of the corporate phalanx all contribute, but volunteers are still the heart of Linux. The fact that none of the big Linux (or Unix) vendors showed up at FOSE this year didn't matter, as long as that little community booth and its volunteer staff was there.

You can't fault the big vendors for having skipped FOSE. It probably wasn't a fertile sales venue for them, what with its office and end-user orientation, combined with the fact that the "big money" in Linux right now seems to be in server and other behind-the-scenes applications, not in office desktops. All the significant Linux vendors are public companies (or would like to be public companies) and are forced to think quarter-by-quarter in today's shaky stock market environment instead of taking a long view. They are not making the multi-year effort Microsoft made to make Windows so pervasive on desktops in homes and in schools. When Microsoft's "95" iteration went on sale it instantly became "the" obvious choice for corporate IT managers because it was the operating system most familiar to them and to their less-technical coworkers.

Corporate Linux vendors don't seem to have learned from Microsoft's "put Windows everywhere" marketing tactics, but are concentrating on niche markets where techies instead of suits call the purchasing tune, like server rooms and scientific applications. Spreading Linux in the home and office seems to be left to volunteers, and in a strange way, over the span of a decade or more, this will probably be as good a strategy as any corporation could develop with the help of polls, surveys, focus groups, and all the rest of the tools high-level marketers have at their fingertips.

Politicians and religious leaders are fully aware of the power of grassroots volunteerism. Profit-based companies generally don't completely grasp the concept even if they pay lip service to it. Sooner or later, they are forced to choose between doing good and doing well, and by law (at least in the U.S.) they must always do well for their shareholders even if this means they do a little less good as a result.

This brings us to one of the most common questions heard at the FOSE Linux community booth: "Who owns Linux?" The volunteers there could have rightfully answered, "We do --along with several million other people all over the world. Would you care to join us as a Linux owner?"

A person who buys a boxed Linux set at Wal-Mart, and installs and runs it, is a Linux user, and there is nothing wrong with that. But a person who contributes to Linux -- whether as a developer, as an advocate or in any of a dozen other ways -- is a Linux owner. This is an important distinction. Tim Bogart can point to developers all he likes, even to the point of saying, "Donald Becker, Don Groves, Peter W. and others... Those are the REAL contributors," but there is no reason he or any of the people who stood on their feet for long hours, three days in a row, during FOSE, should take a back seat to any person or corporation when it comes to taking credit for Linux. IBM CEO Louis Gerstner may get lots of press whenever he makes a Linux-boosting speech, but Megan, the NoVaLUG member who, Tim Bogart says, "...talked to about 4,000 people like she always does," deserves just as much credit as Gerstner, possibly more, for any success Linux may have today or in the future.

And Now, the Sales Pitch

I obviously believe the true strengths of Linux are volunteerism and community cooperation. I would like to see you get involved in your local LUG, and if there isn't one nearby, to consider starting one. But the LUG movement is rather well-established already, so you may want to consider the next step in Linux volunteerism: reaching out beyond the Linux community to show others why Linux is a superior operating system, not only technically, but because of the tremendous community support behind it.

Non-Linux computer shows and expos are great places to evangelize. I spend more of my time at them than at Linux gatherings these days, because "preaching to the converted" is not as exciting -- or as effective -- as reaching out to the rest of the world. It can be a little intimidating, being one of a few people in a booth thrown together with a $0 budget in the middle of a sea of slick displays and smooth-talking marketdroids boosting (mostly Windows) commercial products and services, but I assure you that show organizers and attendees will be receptive to your message even if it is not presented in a highly-polished fashion.

Bill Preece, of the Suncoast LUG in Tampa Bay, Florida, put together a simple booth for a local computer show last year that was really nothing but a folding table, a dozen local Linux users hanging around, a couple of computers, and some giveaway distro. CDs supplied by various vendors. That little display, like the Linux booth at FOSE, drew far more traffic than any professionally done booth of similar size. Suncoast LUG will be at the same show this year, with a bigger booth and more speakers (including me). The show organizers asked Bill and his little band to come back, and it looks like FOSE will invite NoVaLUG back next year, too, which will make 2002 their third year in a row at FOSE.

Computer show organizers are often highly receptive to Linux volunteer booths. Some may request a token payment (usually $50 - $200) for electricity and incidentals, while others may provide booth space totally gratis. It costs nothing to ask local or regional show promoters if they are willing to donate a small space to your LUG, and there is at least an even chance that they will be happy to have you there, especially if you ask three to six months in advance, before they have "locked down" their floor plan and printed their show programs.

I'm sure Tim Bogart and Bill Preece would be happy to advise you on how best to approach and work with show promoters. I have not posted their email addresses here (they get plenty of email already), but if you email me, roblimo@slashdot.org, I will happily pass any information requests on to them --and if you manage to get a show presence together anywhere within a reasonable distance from where I live (Maryland) I might just show up myself (either on OSDN's tab or on my own) to help out.

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