Linux in Fortune

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Mon Feb 22 15:49:15 PST 1999

February 16, 1999 Linux Rally Cry: "Free Operating Systems!" Jodi Mardesich

Talk About It

After living in Silicon Valley for most of the past eight years, I've become used to the Porsches, jargon and Palm Pilots everywhere. Sometimes I even wonder if there's anything really that unusual about the place. I take it back. Monday, I descended into a world where penguin-emblazoned T-shirts are a fashion (and political) statement, where building your own computer is a way of life, and where people take pride in the operating system they use. Here's a hint. It's not Windows. It's Linux, the free operating system lovingly tended to and continually improved by programmers around the world.

To about 200 Linux fans, Monday wasn't President's Day. It was Windows Refund Day, Silicon Valley's version of a protest rally. It's next to impossible to buy a PC without a Microsoft operating system preinstalled, the Linux-lovers say. So, tired of paying for an operating system they don't want or use, the group marched on Microsoft's Foster City sales office to peacefully demand refunds.

They were rebuffed. Microsoft met them in the parking lot with cold drinks and a statement that affirmed Microsoft's commitment to customers, and then said, basically, take a hike. I guess these people who paid for Microsoft software aren't really their customers. Microsoft told the refund-seekers to get the refund from their PC makers. The PC makers say get the refund from Microsoft, because Microsoft won't refund their money.

Attempts to gain ground, first by entering the building, then taking the elevator, were ultimately fruitless. Strange how the elevator wouldn't stop at the ninth floor, where Microsoft's office is located.

That didn't stop the group from making their point to local television crews and hordes of reporters. It was also a chance to do a little geek bonding. While a lot of techies brag about the power of their hardware, these guys were one-upping each other on how much they could do with less. "Oh yeah? I've got Linux running on an old 286!" one claimed.

It was a bit surreal. Eric Raymond, the father of the open source movement, donned an Obi-Wan robe and led the march from a local Denny's, where we parked, to Microsoft's office. The group Severe Tire Damage, toting its own generator for its electrical instruments, played the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction at the Denny's parking lot, but got barred from playing at the rally.

I talked to Lt. Jim Carey (no joke), who had been alerted about the event by Microsoft nearly a week earlier. Because he had done a little Web research on the Linux community (also no joke), he knew that a similar local gathering when Windows 98 was launched had been pretty tame. "They're more educated than most crowds," he said.

At the end of the day, I did a postmortem with a group of six guys. One Unix programmer wondered if we shouldn't be protesting something more important. "Maybe we should be marching for Tibet," said Jorg Bashir, who works for Healtheon. I asked why they love Linux. "Because it works," they all said, practically in unison. They say it doesn't crash. "How many of you have built your own PC?" I asked, thinking I was being smart. All their hands went up. One laughed at me. "Ask me how many I've built. I have seven networked in my home."

I guess I wasn't too lame. They invited me to go on the Linux beer hike in Bavaria this August. Just think. A week of programmers, carrying a generator for the camp LAN, and lots of beer.

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