Hot Air in Hannover
March 2005, Hannover, Germany, CeBIT
Dedication to OSS at CeBIT was an affirmation of Linux and Open Source but at the same time the world’s largest IT fair was a missed opportunity.
It should have been a paradigm shift. Government, industry and community working in concert. Not all the government, not all the industry and not all the community, of course. But enough to reach a certain critical mass.
The potential was there to clinch the growing spirit of collaboration among parties who are often disorganized or are even adversaries.
A week of OSS at CeBIT promised progress towards the high goal of collaboration among Germany’s various OSS players. In Hall 6, the Linux Park drew crowds of delegates and customers from among the 500,000 visitors to the trade fair. In Hall 9, the German Ministry set up a pavilion for OSS. There they announced the second edition of their provocative OSS Migration Guide and introduced a new competence center for OSS. The usual OSS vendors were all there too.
Patronage for OSS by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior was palpable. Their support is both practical and a matter of policy. Choice, security, open standards, development of local competence and control, increased morale of IT staff, stability, independence, cost-savings, fostering competition, stimulation of the market and innovation. These are the motivations expressed by the mandarins of the German Ministry. Interestingly, shortly after CeBIT, distribution of the Ministry’s Migration Guide was suddenly discontinued because reportedly one of the contributors to the document was irritated. Their guide is glowingly supportive of open source as well as explicitly critical of Microsoft’s disregard for data format standards though Microsoft was one of the contributors to the report. Fortunately, the report is expected to be republished soon with no major changes. Nonetheless, it’s ability to irritate is a tribute to the power of the document and its impact on the German IT ecosystem.
The OSS community also showed up at Hannover big time. Klaus Knopper, in association with LinuxTag, introduced Knoppix 3.8 and precipitated a near riot of excitement at the Linux Park.
Missing in Action
But where was the innovation and sense of excitement from the commercial corner? For most vendors, it seemed disappointedly like business as usual. Sure, Novell announced its upcoming SUSE Linux 9.3, targeting both newbies and advanced users. And Red Hat, IBM, CA, all just showed off their standard Linux fare.
In Germany, there are many activists dedicated to changing the rules of IT engagement, especially as information technology attempts to meet the needs of the local industry and infrastructure. But, here at CeBIT, as at many commercial venues, the missing-in-action were unfortunately the predominantly conservative commercial interests. Even Germany’s traditional commercial OSS leader, SUSE, has been disparaged because it is now in the estate of the American company Novell. Some note that certain government organizations are jumping ship to embrace a “more open” Debian since SUSE no longer has the advantage of being a native progeny. Other commercial players, like IBM, are potent forces for OSS, but often prefer to work behind the scenes.
These days, as conferences and expos all across the world fully commercialize, they seem to be merging into a homogeneous blur. Jon “Maddog” Hall has been bottled and shipped to all ports of call. It’s the kind of globalization and commercialization from which OSS cannot escape.
In the end, we have to wonder where’s the original excitement? Where’s the Penguin? Is it only an empty gas-filled balloon?
What Should Have Been
What was needed in Hannover was for all the players, commercial and non-commercial, to have tried their best to seize the day. Still at the beginning of a revolution, commercial interests must realize they can truly grow the OSS pie for wider and deeper business opportunities. Government, as in the case of the German Federal Ministry, is often ready to jump on board and to help with both policy and practice. The OSS community, of course, is always eager to push and pull. Progress can only be made by everyone pitching in. It’s the difference between a Penguin full of hot air and a living, vital Linux.