[Marxism] More History & Thoughts on Open Source Software & Linux

Clay Claiborne clayclai at gmail.com
Fri Jan 3 01:20:38 MST 2014

There were only 17 vendors at Linux Expo '97 and my company, Cosmos
Engineering, was one on them. The Linux Expo  was among the very first
Linux trade shows and it was held in the Spring in North Carolina and
hosted by Red Hat which was a collective of about a dozen people in the
Raleigh-Durham area. I believe the first one was in 1996 and the last
one in 1999 or 2000. By them it has been superseded by much larger and
more professional Linux trade shows but then they were much smaller more
intimate affairs with attendance counted in the hundreds. I will always
treasure the memories of those early gatherings before the world
discovered Linux.       
I was there promoting my Linux On A Disk product and it was there that I
first heard about Google. I was in a library just outside of the venue,
waiting for the show floor to open and looking up stuff with the aid of
Yahoo and Altavista on one of the library computers when the guy next to
me told me about this new Linux search engine. They hadn't incorporated
yet or even gotten the domain google.com. It was just a couple of guys
working out of their dorm room then, and the address was something like
google.stanford.edu but the buzz was that it ran on Linux, had a special
section on Linux and it was already very good. The key to the success of
the Google search algorithm was very Linux and something like digital
democracy. They ranked search results based on how many people linked to

Other than a booth from Sun, which had one guy that seemed to be at all
the early Linux shows, there were none of the corporate types around.
Still, Linux had already created a buzz among the techies at many of the
major computer companies. During a smoke break on the patio, I met a
couple of guys from Motorola, but they weren't suppose to tell anyone
they were from Motorola, because officially Motorola would have nothing
to do with Linux. They said they got permission to attend  the expo
because this one Windows NT server had been acting up and become a real
nightmare for their department and these guys made the problem go away.
When their supervisor asked them how they finally fixed that NT server,
they told him it was really quite simple, they had replaced the Windows
NT with Linux. So the supervisor have them leave to attend the expo but
they weren't to tell anybody that they worked for Motorola. Still, they
told me. How else could they tell about this Linux victory over Microsoft?

A few years later, Motorola started having its own booth at the Linux
shows and a few years ago things came 'round full circle when the two
guys that started a Linux company in their dorm room bought Motorola.
Anyway, the point of the story is that the adoption of Linux by many
tech companies including Intel and IBM, is that it was promoted first by
the workers in these companies and when these companies started to see
that they could make money off of Linux and make their technical workers
happy at the same time, it started to take off. As ESR was fond of
saying, we were doing Linux because we wanted to write software that
didn't suck. 

At Linux Expo '98 Red Hat released their first mufti-language version.
The announcement had promised that seven languages would be supported
but at the show, they said they had added an eighth  language and held a
contest to guess the added language. Nobody won the contest and when we
got the CD's, we found that the added language was "redneck." The way
they did it had us rolling in the isles. It was good to know the good
ole boys from NC had a sense of humor. I still treasure that Red Hat 5.1

A few years later Linux got discovered by big business and Wall St. and
serious money started to roll in. I remember investor types asking what
the ticker symbol was for Linux and enjoyed the look on their faces as I
tried explain to them that Linux wasn't owned by any company. Red Hat
did the first major IPO and they established a policy that was followed
by many other Linux IPOs. They shared the wealth, bringing in many
people, myself included, into their IPO program that had no formal
relationship with Red Hat based on their contributions to Linux.

In 1999, when Eric Raymond stayed at my place while visiting in LA, we
calculated his net-worth, on paper at about $39.5 million. He had been
ask to be on the board of VA Linux, got 150,000 shares for his troubles
and after the IPO, the stock price soared to something over $300 a
share. I had got him to LA to speak to the local users. He spoke at Cal
Tech and one other place, UCLA, I think. His "Cathedral and Bazaar"
hadn't been publish as a book yet by Tim O'Reilly but it was making the
rounds as a paper and there was a lot of interest. Now ESR is an avowed
anti-communist but this is based on what he knows about Stalin, Pol Pot
and such as presented by the bourgeois media, but his thesis on what he
called the original gift culture and how it would return, with Linux as
a prime example, sounded an awful lot like the journey from primitive
communism to future communism. He knew I was a communist, everybody on
the Linux community knew that, and we had many lively discussions. Still
I could never shake his opinion that communism was bad and I was wrong.
But then he's not the only one I've met that thinks they know a lot
about a subject when they really don't know what they are talking about.
I've seen that most recently in discussions on this list about OSS.

At the time I counseled ESR to sell some of the stock and put a couple
million in the bank or something else. Later, after the Wall St. tech
bust and VA Linux became a penny stock headed for bankruptcy I said to
him "Tell me you at least put a million aside." He said he didn't
because as a board member he didn't think it right to start selling his
shares just when the company was running into trouble. Well, easy come,
easy go, I guess, anyway there was a time when he was worth millions on

Every Linux company wanted Linus as an officer or board member but he
refuse all offers. He felt it would be unfair to all the other Linux
companies if he took a job with one. He did move to the US about that
time and got a good job with a non-Linux company though. It was easy. He
had a reputation as a top programmer by then.

Those early Linux shows will away have a special place in my heart. Its
when I got to go drinking with all the legends, Linus, ESR, RMS, Bruce
Perens, Maddog Hall, the Slashdot crowd and many more, but dozens, not
even hundreds yet, and when the money started to roll in, we had some
great parties. But those good ole days became a causality of our own
success. Soon Linus couldn't even show his face without being mobbed and
stopped coming to the shows entirely. As "the suits" took over, others,
like me, only showed up to party with old friends and as they dropped
out, one by one, there was less reason to go. I remember at one of the
last Linux Worlds I attended, a group of us "old hands" were sitting
around a lunch table in the food court when someone came up and said you
guys are like the original guys that came down from the mountains with
Fidel. They call them the "historicals", that's what you are, and the
name stuck.

As these Linux World shows started being dominated by big booths by the
likes of IBM, Intel, Dell, even Microsoft and of course Motorola, and
crowded by thousands of people new to Linux, most of them looking for a
way to make a buck off it, Tim O'Reilly started the Open Source
conference as a way of bringing back the old focus on the technology and
the old spirit, these were much smaller and bought together the old
crowd and they were good for a while, but after the Iraq War started, I
changed my focus, resigned a president of LULA and  settled for
attending our own Southern CA Linux Expo every year, which will be
holding its 12th event next month and is widely recognized as coming
close to the spirit of those early shows,

So as something is gained something is lost too. While we all long for
the feeling of the early days, and some, like Richard Stallman, would be
happy if we never progressed past that, most of us were doing it to
change the world in a very real but positive way, and while that was not
done without some losses, I'm very happy to see what we created and
quite proud to have played some small part in creating it.

While my blog has been dominated by writings on the Arab Spring and
Occupy recently, a few have deal with the Linux movement:

The Mountain comes to Mohammad
Why I like Google: Reason #38

Will Android make Google Money?

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