Call it a culture clash. It wasn’t clear whether it was a UK/US misunderstanding, or an example of the yawning gap between Linux developers and the rest of the IT world, but Open Source luminaries definitely came off worse at the Network Industry Awards held at this year’s Networks for Business show.
Including a section of Linux awards in the middle of evening of entertainment designed for hardware salespeople was probably the first mistake – the few members of the Linux community present were probably baffled by the fact that food could be served on plates rather than cardboard pizza boxes. The Linux User show, which was held in conjunction with the Networks show, had done well to attract personalities of the stature of John ‘maddog’ Hall and Tim O’Reilly, (true heroes both), so it was natural to include them in the awards ceremony. Hence the second mistake: thinking that many of the people present were interested in Linux – or indeed anything beyond the next bottle of wine.
But an even worse mistake was sparring with the master-of-ceremonies, Dominic Holland. Holland is a Perrier award-winning comedian renowned for his quick wit. As an appetiser, he’d ripped into the IT industry and networking in particular, but he wanted something more substantial for a main course – enter the Open Source doyens.
The real problem was that Holland had quickly sussed that the crowd wanted to be entertained. Hall and O’Reilly on the other hand thought that this was a perfect opportunity to evangelise about Linux ... to an audience that, on the whole, would have difficulty in spelling operating system. Despite Holland’s instructions to keep speeches to a minimum, the dynamic duo persisted in prefacing every Linux award with a short speech to extol the virtues of Open Source software. It is doubtful whether anyone there was actively hostile to Linux, in fact many companies would have been warmly supportive, but virtually everyone recognised that the attitude of these two was wholly inappropriate. To be fair to Tim O'Reilly, he soon recognised that he'd misjudged the audience and cut back on his eulogistic approach.
It was prickly right from the outset, with Holland openly mocking Hall’s nom de guerre. And it went downhill from there. Some of the debate had an almost kindergarten quality: Holland pronouncing the word, Lienux while the Hall/O’Reilly axis opted for the more conventional Linux – complete with digs at people who mispronounce the word. Then Hall essayed a joke about penguins that fell on stony ground; cue for more mockery from Holland.
The final straw came when Hall was pipped for the Individual Contribution to Linux award by Alan Cox. As a picture of Alan Cox was flashed up, Holland commented: “Too bad, maddog, he's got the bigger beard”. Hall’s face was a picture at this point.
The spat with the Linux bods livened up the awards ceremony no end. The list of awards gets longer every year and while the Networking Industry Awards are a good reflection of what’s going on in the networking world, the 29 categories that were awarded at this year’s event were probably at least half a dozen too many.
But at least it exists. It’s a way for the network managers, engineers and assorted techies who keep networks running throughout the year to receive their dues. It’s a way for some unheralded companies with some good products to compete on an equal basis with the likes of Cisco and HP. And, this year, at least, it was a chance for some first class entertainment as two industry figures, who had taken themselves far too seriously found themselves being gently ribbed.
We suspect that Hall and O’Reilly have become so used to being lionised by the Open Source fundamentalists that they found to difficult to deal with someone who couldn’t recognise their worth.
This is not to knock the work they’ve done – the development of Open Source has definitely been a force for the good – but they now need to learn to communicate with a community outside their own sphere more effectively. If Linux is really to succeed in the enterprise, then it's going to need (whisper this softly) slicker spokespeople. By presenting themselves as long-winded, humourless nerds to the UK networking community, they reinforced years of prejudice about Americans’ lack of humour and more recent prejudices about Linux programmers.
Still, it could have been worse: imagine if it had been Richard Stallman who had been mocked. There would have been the equivalent of a nuclear explosion over Birmingham – at least this maddog didn’t bite.