Thursday, August 9, 2007

LinuxWorld is dying

In between teaching and the big annual conference of management professors, Thursday I was able to squeeze in a day at LinuxWorld Expo San Francisco. I don’t particularly like going to SF, but it’s relatively painless with the Caltrain “Baby Bullet” (a misnomer — it’s just a limited stop train).

LinuxWorld Expo was first offered in February 1999 in San José. The show later provided the backdrop for that “most excellent” (80s surfer-speak) Linux documentary, Revolution OS. When there’s time, I show excerpts of the movie to my technology strategy students, particular the LinuxWorld clip involving the Linus Torvalds-Richard Stallman interaction, as well as the interviews showing the conflicting ideologies between “free software” (i.e. Stallman) and “open source” (almost everyone else).

This is my 3rd LinuxWorld, having come in 2003 and 2004 after moving to Northern California. As in the previous shows, it was held in Moscone Center (once filled each year by Macworld Expo), but this year it was only at the comparatively small Moscone North hall. As with previous LinuxWorld and MacWorld shows, the show was managed by IDG with (if past habits hold true to form) extortionate rental rates and onerous big city union rules.

Even allowing for arriving on the third day, it’s quite clear that the excitement has faded from previous years. The show was empty when it opened Thursday, even if attendance picked up after a while. The show didn’t even fill the 4 acres of Moscone North; it was eerie to see the normally bustling (6-acre) Moscone South empty and dark.

If you didn't stop and have a deep conversation at various booths, you could easily do the whole hall in 3 hours — a far cry from LinuxWorld (or MacWorld) at its peak, when you needed to allot multiple days. In fact, it reminded me of Macworld Expo in the late 90s when Apple and its ecosystem were collapsing. Today, the Macworld shows are bigger, but they are padded with schlocky little companies selling iPod cases or speakers.

The speakers were also 2nd tier. In 1999, it was Linus Torvalds. In 2003, I missed my train and thus missed Irving Wladawsky-Berger, then the IBM vice president in charge of open source strategies and the corporate America‘s most powerful open source advocate. This year, it was a bunch of CTOs, someone passed over (twice) for CEO of HP, and the CEO of Novell. (Andrew Morton, number two on the Linux project, would have been worth hearing Monday but I was still in Philadelphia).

I would be surprised if LinuxWorld Expo survives to 2010, although canceling the East Coast show (formerly Boston, now in NYC) might keep the franchise alive a little longer. Since Linux and open source use continue to grow (a statement of fact, not of advocacy) there must be some other explanation. I have two guesses.

One guess is that such tradeshows do their gangbuster business when a technology is new and an industry is rapidly changing and thus people need to gather information in a rapidly-changing, exciting, ambiguous period. Macworld Expo brought a lot of traffic to Moscone in January, originally to see AppleTV but later to see the iPhone once it was announced.

The other guess is that tradeshows are going the way of the retail store, printed newspaper, and other artifacts of our tangible, physical, industrial legacy era. Yes we needed face-to-face markets 20 or 200 or 2000 years ago to sell produce or haggle over rug prices, but today we do our information search on the Internet. The exorbitant prices charged by convention halls, promoters and featherbedding unions make the proposition less attractive every year. Linux isn’t dying, but LinuxWorld Expo is, being killed by, CNET, Ars Technica and their ilk.

If that’s the future, I’ll be sorry to see the trade show go. I found them a very handy way to gather market intelligence, first as an entrepreneur, then as an academic researcher and teacher. With a good trade show, in day you can go from knowing little to having a very good sense of the state of the market. (I learned a lot this trip). You can also collect a lot of business cards and meet a lot of people — I’d be sorry to lose that, and even more sorry if my daughter’s era does not include that.

I used to enjoy a day trip to see COMDEX, for decades the PC industry’s mother-of-all-shows. When I last went in 2003, the show was clearly in decline, but still its termination (2003 was the end) came as a shock. COMDEX has been largely replaced by CES (both as a convergence play and also under better management), so I guess I need to start going again despite the schedule conflict (usually with my HICSS obligations).

More importantly, I need to go back to CeBIT, the massive German trade show combining COMDEX with a mobile phone and electrical appliance show. Once I assumed that the Berlin Wall would always be there — and then it was gone — so I should assume that CeBIT will also someday join COMDEX without prior notice.

O'Reilly and Stallman

Picture credit: Photo of Tim O’Reilly and Richard Stallman from the O’Reilly Network, © 2002 Julian Cash

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