Microsoft: Coming to a Linux User Group near You? (Part One)

Posted by PaulFerris on Feb 14, 2005 5:09 AM EDT
LXer; By Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris
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Let's start off with some questions that may have answers that are harder than you would expect:
  1. "In general, how do you react to outsiders that offer to present at your Linux User Group (LUG)?"
  2. "What about commercial interests presenting to your LUG?"
  3. "What would you do if a Microsoft employee showed up at your LUG?"
  4. "If you allowed a Microsoft employee to present, just what kind of topics would you allow?
Now for the really tricky part: The questions, especially that last one, aren't hypothetical.

When you are wasting your time on your enemy, Engulfed in a fever of spite.
Beyond your tunnel vision, reality fades, like shadows into the night ...
--Pink Floyd Lost for Words
(italics are mine)

Before we make it to the "answers" section, I'd like to contrast LUGs, the Linux community and Microsoft as a corporation.

It's always been our sense of community that I feel makes the Linux "movement" strong. You can find the community in various places and at the core of a lot of happenings. At events, web sites and especially Linux User Groups. While it doesn't survive comparisons to other communities in a lot of ways, the Linux community has survived the test of time.

At the core of what makes a community (or a society, but that's a higher level discussion) is the civility, but mainly it's the conversation. It is the communication and the fact that there are some semblance of rules of civility in place. Things to keep the bad guys in check, things that allow the good guys to prevail.

I truly believe that it is this scalable ability to converse that sustains our longevity. 20 years from now, we will be here because we're conversant. Any corporation can deliver operating system software. Look at all of the examples (and failures) in the past and present. The big question in the longevity equation is just how much say you as a user have in the process and product.

Opportunities for real involvement abound when it comes to GNU/Linux. If you want to be a part of the support equation you can join a mailing list. If advocacy is your game there are numerous marketing opportunities, from presenting at your local LUG to educating the powers that be in the workplace. In the creation equation anyone with smarts and an Internet connection is welcome to join.

This interaction makes Linux more than an operating system. It makes it a process, a community, and more. The conversation is the packet-level traffic of the Linux network. I think we're starting to see something now from Microsoft -- very small indicators, but they're there -- that they just might be finally on to it.

When I say "it", I mean the real hidden secret -- and when I say hidden, I mean hidden in plain sight. We've always been about conversation, from day one. The Linux community as I've said in the past, wears its heart on its sleeve. Nothing or at least very little in the way of hidden agendas can be executed when all of your valuable communication takes place on public lists and web sites that everyone can access.

The hidden secret is the value of our conversation and the fact that as a community we're fairly inclusive. Anyone can join. We talk to almost everyone. Now, I'm not arguing that people in the past haven't had the ability to contact people inside of Microsoft and get a response, but speaking from experience, I can tell you that access to people in the Linux community is entirely different.

This isn't to discount some of what put Microsoft where it is today. They've been known to listen to their customers. For all my disgust with their monopolistic practices, they aren't where they are now because of sheer might. There are good people at Microsoft doing good things with software.

Treated as a whole product and at the core of their weakness has been the mess that happens when it's all bolted together. There's the mess that occurred when dirty technological tricks were played with the aforementioned code-base to destroy competition. It's common opinion that these things prevented true innovation to spark and grow in the marketplace. Adding insult to injury, their reputation for lying in the marketplace helped take them from the folks that beat IBM at its own game to a company that's set the benchmark for the phrase "Mindless 900lb Corporate Gorilla".

At least, that was the story till about 5 years ago, when suddenly everyone was talking about this "Linux" thing. There was a lot of talk about Linux "hype" while Microsoft was doing the real hyping. Over the past few years there has been a lot of talk about "myths" when in fact Microsoft has created their [1] own mythology.

But in general, conversation with Microsoft is different.

I can almost always converse with someone in the Linux community at just about any level. More importantly, I can always be sure that the response I receive is a "real" conversation -- not some attempt at obfuscation, marketing or worse some kind of attempt at swaying my opinion to a direction that runs contrary to reality. Like the question that begins this article, these statements about conversation aren't hypothetical.

This may seem somewhat trivial to a lot of pre-Internet era executive types. I suspect that this is where Bill and Steve really missed the boat. Thanks to an intuitive sense for a lot of us the Linux community did not. See The ClueTrain Manifesto[2] for more on this subject, or if you're not that convinced that times are changing.

The general feeling I get when I have had conversations with Microsoft employees has been one of extreme arrogance. The sheer monetary weight of the company to these people is the justification for all of their actions. Who needs to converse when (at least in your mind) you're high up in the castle looking down?

One of the main points of ClueTrain is the idea that markets are about conversation -- that they've almost always been about it. Only with the advent of mass one-way marketing technology like TV, for example, did this change. With the advent of the Internet, the pendulum is swinging quickly back to the place where it was before, albeit under drastically different technological underpinnings.

And so back to the LUGs and their importance. They are often organized via the Internet and by definition they have Linux as the core interest. LUGs, however, are not about technology. They are ultimately about honest to goodness human networking. At a LUG you as a member might learn something new about X windows for example, that you wouldn't necessarily catch surfing the web reading FAQs.

You might make contact with a business interest or a job opportunity. You might just make a permanent member of the community out of someone who in the past was only marginally interested in this "Linux" thing. The possibilities are endless and the limits set by the imaginations of the members. Your conversations at a LUG will ultimately change the interface to the Linux community from web-based face to human one. Add to this the fact that we're typically not selling anything, and you've got some powerful marketing dynamics.

This, at the core, changes us from a bunch of people looking at things, to a bunch of people participating in a process. I can tell you that this is the main dynamic missing from any of the Microsoft experiences I've had. From my experience, the people I've met at Microsoft events and LUGs have felt more like sporting fans than players. This feeling, until I was able to fully identify it, used to tug at the back of my mind.

The difference between participation and being a spectator should ring a familiar bell at this point. It's the same difference between the conversation you might have on LXer.com, for example, and that of a TV commercial.

Is Microsoft changing? I can tell you I see small hints here -- sparks that could be indicative of a catching flame, or blown out by the next stupid marketing campaign. For years they have treated the Linux community as an enemy. When one of their people shows up at an event or LUG, asking to present, you have to wonder if maybe somewhere there's a change in their method of conversation -- or simply talk of change.

Or even if it's some kind of pointless attempt at infiltration.

Let's end this at the questions asked at the beginning of the article: Say a Linux vendor shows up at your LUG, wishing to show off the latest distribution -- proprietary extensions and all. What if an embedded Linux/*BSD vendor wants to show off their product? Where do you draw the line between what is at its highest potential an event centered on conversation, to the other end of the spectrum where your LUG turns into a human infomercial?

And just what do you do about a Microsoft employee, wishing to present a topic?

I have my own reservations and opinions here, but I'd be extremely interested in hearing your opinions first. I'll try my best to summarize them in the followup to this article next week.

After all, at the core, I truly do believe that our most powerful weapon is conversation itself.


Paul Ferris has been a Linux community member for over a decade. He spent several years supporting Linux via Internet Relay Chat on openprojects.net. Over the years he's presented at schools and LUGs on a wide variety of topics. He was one of the founding members of the Canton Linux Enthusiasts. He has been writing (and conversing) about Linux since 1998 in various publications. Unlike faceless corporations, you can feel free to talk with him, anytime.
REFERENCES

[1]Microsoft, at arguably their worst time in history when it comes to security, has been making a lot of noise about how secure they really are. Here are some laughable examples: In general, most Microsoft Windows PC users can easily relate several recent virus/Spyware problems. It's common knowledge. What isn't all that common knowledge is that computing doesn't have to be that way.
[2]The ClueTrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual.
Amazon.com carries it. This is highly recommended reading. Doc Searls of Linux Journal fame is one of the authors, by the way.


The Linux Community: Wear Your Hearts On Your Sleeves.
Pink Floyd's "The Division Bell" is a album about communication. This is a link to the full lyrics for Lost for Words. Warning: Use of the F-word.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Depends on who wants to talk... dinotrac 16 1,552 Feb 17, 2005 1:36 PM
Whose LUG? SFN 16 1,598 Feb 15, 2005 8:42 AM
How about the questions? pseudo 1 1,545 Feb 14, 2005 6:02 PM
We've had em at NTLUG cjcox 0 1,307 Feb 14, 2005 7:32 AM
LUG ≠ Commercial SeanConnery315 0 1,238 Feb 14, 2005 6:33 AM

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