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Refocusing LinuxWorld

Feb 29, 2008, 23:30 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It may seem a bit weird to start a discussion about the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo (LWCE) so early in the year. After all, it doesn't run until the first week of August.

But the topic came up because a friend of mine in the "biz" IM'ed me yesterday and asked if I was going to attend the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) coming up towards the end of March out in San Francisco this year. Unfortunately, no such luck, because I really enjoy attend the OSBC. (I'm even in one of their publicity photos; I'm the fat shoulder in the pale green shirt immediately behind the guy standing.)

To me, the OSBC epitomizes what LWCE would be like without the developers and user community in attendance. Now, for sure, there are users and developers that do go to OSBC, but in a far less percentages than attend LWCE. And way, way less than the ratio of developers/users to corporate suit types than a show like the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE). At SCALE, the ratio is flipped, and it's the suits who are in the minority.

For attendees of these conferences, or any follower of the Linux community, these observations are nothing new. What is new is the rest of the conversation with my friend, a guy who's in a pretty good position to advise a lot of open source companies how and where to do business. Surprising me a bit, he said that he was starting to advise several clients and acquaintances that LWCE may no longer be worth their while.

His reason was simple: LWCE is no longer the best place to do face-to-face business. It's a good place still, but not the best place.

Looking back at my recent experiences, I can kind of see his point.

For one thing, LWCE is big. Not as mind-bogglingly huge as Comdex or CES, but it can be hard to do serious meet-and-greets with potential business partners when there are so many of those potential business partners clamoring for your attention.

Another problem: LWCE is expensive. It's expensive to attend--not helped by the fact that its always in San Francisco, a city I love but still pricey--and the cost to have a booth is unbelievably expensive. I'm not talking the gigant-o mega-booths that Red Hat and IBM have--just a little booth is thousands of dollars. Add to that the costs of travel and lodging for the folks manning the booth, and it can be a huge chunk of a smaller company's expenses for the year.

Again, nothing new here. But what complicates this is the fact that every single exhibitor is looking to get a return on their investment while they are at LWCE (just like any other show). And the return is only one thing: a business deal with a customer or new partner that generates revenue. Nothing else--not the parties, not the media coverage--really matters. The press and the glitz can aid in getting a company more business, but all the headlines in the world don't matter if you don't sell something and make a profit.

At LWCE this is especially complicated, because much to the lament of the exhibitors I have spoken with year after year, the traffic they get attending their booths are typically not potential customers. Sure, they will all smile and answer users' and developers' questions with politeness and correctness, but inwardly they are probably cringing because these conversations will ultimately translate into no money for them

One big exception to this fact of exhibitor life at LWCE is the .Org Pavilion, the section where all the non-profits and user groups come out to show their cool wares. They are typically very happy to be there, getting face time with their user and teammates whom they don't usually see through the rest of the year. And, interestingly, the Pavilion is a favorite place where many of the business people coming to LWCE like to visit, too.

IDG World Expo, the organizers of LWCE, might dispute this, since the Pavilion's favored status might undercut their sales pitch to commercial exhibitors. But such protestations should be met with the cold hard reality of business. With no offense to any of the .Orgs, but do we really think that IDG would donate valuable floor space to the Pavilion if they didn't know it was such a big draw? Community altruism is great, but having dealt with events coordinators before, I know better.

So here's the point where you might be thinking, why is he hatin' on LWCE so much? He's not--I still think LWCE is a good show. I just wonder if it could be better.

For instance, my friend suggested, why not play up the Pavilion's strength and get more planned interaction with the business folk and the .Org exhibitors? Have planned demonstrations/events, where the non-profits can show off the really cool technology that all of the execs really like to see? It gets the non-profits in front of potential money and development help, and it shows the suits the cutting edge technologies that they can start thinking about using in their businesses. They may even go back to a Novell or Red Hat and say, hey, when are you going to implement what I saw over in the Pavilion today?

There's already a show that's trying to do this. My friend pointed me to an article on Linux.com by perennial PR dude Joe Eckert covering the recent Open Source Meets Business Congress over in Nurnberg, Germany. Organized by former SuSE CEO Richard Siebt, this show tries to get the developer communities and the business together in a much more direct way than LWCE has tried. I spoke with Eckert later and he thinks Siebt's approach has a lot of merit.

Clearly, IDG is aware that LinuxWorld still needs some fine tuning. For the 2008 show, they've introduced a Mobile Linux conference-in-a-conference and a Linux Garage exhibition where you can go and see all the nifty Linux-running gadgets. Topics sure to appeal to the inner geek of all of those execs, don't you think?

There are, I am sure, other ideas that could strengthen LWCE. Toss them out, because I for one would be sad to see LWCE become irrelevant.