Friday, July 24, 2009

OSCON: Dead Venue, Good Conversations

"I liked it better in Portland," said one OSCON attendee to another during Thursday's lunch. This comment summed up the feeling of OSCON 2009 at the San Jose Convention Center. Nice people, wrong venue.

Portland's progressive reputation and its status as the North American home of open-source deity Linus Torvalds made it the perfect place for this modest event. The cavernous, sterile confines of the largest convention center in sterile Silicon Valley brought the excitement surrounding OSCON down several notches.

But in the spirit of hating the sin and not the sinner, it can be reported that there is still a lot of personality and dynamism in the world of open-source software. Open Source is experiencing stimulating times during this global recession, the most exciting period since the great tech meltdown of 2000-2004.

As IT budgets once again go under siege, the concept of "free" software--or at least much cheaper software without vendor lock-in--becomes very appealing to organizations of all sizes throughout the world.

This time, Open Source doesn't have to go through that pesky validation process it faced years ago. Linux is well-established, even conquering many segments of enterprise IT. The Firefox browser is the most popular--if not yet the most used--in the world. The great proprietary behemoths Microsoft, Sun, and Intel were all out inf force at OSCON screaming as to how open they really are if you just give them a chance to prove it.

And conversations I had with folks from companies such as Bluenog, WSO2, SourceForge, and Revolution Computing demonstrated that there are many serious businesspeople out there who are using this moment to "innovate and invest" in the words of one of them to secure a solidly defensible position when the economy recovers. WSO2 also presented on the mission-criticality of security and governance, and why it's time companies imbue it at design-time.

The New Symbian has a new story--trying to expand paltry market share in the US while maintaining hegemony in the rest of the world--and had the best booth, with glorious yellow beanbags providing a comfortable respite from walking the floor and enduring hard chairs during long sessions.

The political dimension of Open Source Software will never abate entirely. Certainly about half of the booth space here was occupied by the good folks who truly believe in your freedom, in the greater good of the Open-Source movement, and in not trying to make too much money. But the practical dimension seems to co-exist peacefully these days.

The compelling ideas of flexibility and ownership through forking, of community-driven standards, of staying out of the clutches of the monopolists in the crowd, and of using software that works and doesn't bleed you to death have penetrated into corporate consciousness to the degree that it must have seemed like a good idea to hold this event in the Heart of Silicon Valley. Too bad the Heart of Open Source in North America is still in Portland, Oregon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Google Takes on Microsoft Windows

Who knows if Google can transform its strengths in handling megatraffic into the ability to develop a mega-OS?

Google today is primarily an IT company. Yes, it is quite annoying that this public company won't publicly discuss where it keeps its servers, let alone give a hint to the secret sauce that powers them.

The fact remains that the company has achieved astonishing technical competence in developing and managing a hive intelligence that will be the subject of historical analysis centuries from now.

The question is whether it can turn its expertise outward and deliver an application (eg, OS) strong enough to knock Redmond off of its perch.

Few tears will be shed (outside of Microsoft, that is) should this occur. Older-generation folks such as myself have simply spent too many years putting up with buggy versions of DOS, then Windows, then being subjected to the innumerable and large problems that the virus-magnet Internet Explorer has caused.

Microsoft has been almost willfully careless over the decades with its arrogantly casual treatment of the problems its OS and browser have caused, in my opinion.

Its strikingly hubristic, monopolistic practices were oh-so-close to being consigned to the dustbin of history, before judge Thomas Penfield Jackson indiscretely bragged about what a badass he was in adjudicating Microsoft, thereby calling into question his judgement and neutering his verdict.

Comparing Microsoft execs to "stubborn mules," Jackson demonstrated that even a very smart person can be a real dumbass.

A younger generation doesn't seem to have this emnity toward Redmond. With their first experience being a well-oiled Windows XP, and with many of them enamored by the XBox, the Vista fiasco seems to be the aberration rather than the norm to them.

Yes, they've encountered the XBox's red ring of death (the child of the blue screen of death), but simply trade their units in when this happens. Microsoft, to them, is a good consumer electronics company, and Bill Gates is just another old rich guy.

So, maybe any rant I have against Microsoft reveals a mentality that's been passed by, sort of like those old guys of my youth who used to piss and moan about FDR.

The historical record does reveal Roosevelt's arrogance--trying to pack the Supreme Court, running for endless terms as President, initiating an age of massive government intervention while overstating its results and taking too much credit himself, serving until he was so enfeebled that he did the world untold damage by his weak Yalta performance.

His still-new memorial in Washington DC betrays the grandiosity of the man, in stark contrast to the classic, powerful elegance of the other presidential memorials. Yet Roosevelt continues to be considered one of the country's great presidents, the guy on whose watch the government established a safety net for its citizens, The Great Depression ended, and World War II turned decisively into what would be total victory for the good guys.

The historical record is already treating Bill Gates et al in similar fashion. Bill is seen today as a great technological visionary, his company as the single most important in the history of computing, and his philanthropy as the modern-day equivalent to Andrew Carnegie.

Yet the company made its wealth in a fashion I consider to be nefarious. It had no concept of homegrown innovation or of treating its customers (whether vendors like Compaq and Dell or users like you and me) with any sort of consideration or respect.

So if a day of reckoning does come for Redmond, I would expect to see very little sentimentality over its fate. Reminds me of when airlines started to fail. After decades of providing uniformly hidebound, crappy service, no one cried when we lost such previous American icons as Eastern Airlines, PanAm, and TWA. No one would have cried if the same had happened to United.

General Motors is experiencing the same situation today. Had the company decided, let's say in the 1970s, to manufacture well-built cars and tried to address what has proven to be a chronic cycle of oil shocks, then maybe there would've been some customer loyalty that would've kept the company from its recent embarrassments and failure.

On a smaller scale, the Comdex trade show perished a few years ago, after many years of abusing its exhibitors and attendees. Many people mourned the passing of their annual November bacchanal in Las Vegas; no one mourned the passing of the Comdex brand itself.

As I said, there is an entire generation of people who do not share my views and history will continue to be kind to Microsoft, I think.

So I should rant no more. But deep down inside, I think it would be cool to see Google just kick Microsoft's butt right out to the curb.