COMDEX Canada West — Is there another floor?

A common question heard at COMDEX Canada West, this and previous years, is “where’s the rest of it?”. Following the big COMDEX show in November, held in Las Vegas, the show in Vancouver has simply never had the same big draw for either vendors or attendees.

But taken for what it is, a very large local computer show with a few big names, COMDEX can be a valuable place to meet colleagues and pick up on the trends in the marketplace. The most obvious battle going on this year was the Windows vs. Linux/Unix fight. It started with the opening day keynote speech highlighting the soon to be released Windows 2000, presented by Microsoft’s Frank Clegg, VP, Central Region U.S. and Canada, and attended to slightly over seating capacity.

Clegg started by commenting on Bill Gates having just left the CEO role to concentrate on directing development of the next generation of Windows services. Clegg, with the assistance of others, then demonstrated Windows 2000, the Active Directory and remote control of Windows devices.

In the afternoon, Corel had an opportunity to demonstrate their new Corel Linux distribution in a session hosted by Steve Dotto. Corel’s CEO, Dr. Michael Cowpland, arriving at the end of the demo from the airport, then made a short presentation detailing Corel’s future plans for their Linux distribution and the Linux versions of all their applications, due out this summer. Dotto then moderated questions to Cowpland from the audience, which was far past standing-room only.

A striking moment came near the end of the session, when Dotto asked the audience “After seeing how easy Corel Linux is, who’s not going to try Linux sometime in the future.” Out of over a thousand people, less than half a dozen put up their hands. Evidence of renewed interested in alternatives could be found through-out the show.

The three main platforms being presented this year were Microsoft Windows 2000, Linux (from both Corel and Stormix, another Canadian company targeting the end-user Linux market), and Palm Computing. Macintosh machines were rare to see, and Apple had absolutely no presence at all.

What was fascinating was simply watching the number of people crowd around the various presentation areas for the different platforms. The crowds gathering to watch the demonstrations of the Palm organizers and Corel Linux, being held in their own dedicated areas, were usually larger than those watching the Windows 2000 demos in the Microsoft area. The presentations being put on in the Linux Pavilion by the smaller Linux companies were also always packed solid.

It was also interesting talking with people who use computers in their enterprises, and getting feedback from them on what they’re planning on doing over the next several months and years. Running organizations with between fifty and a thousand users, not one person I spoke to is planning on deploying Windows 2000 before a lengthly evaluation period. Many are following the Gartner Group’s advise of not deploying until after at least one service patch is released, if not a full upgrade.

Among this same group of people, most were already evaluating Linux as a web or file server and some had already done full-scale deployment. Few were using Linux on the desktop (“except for the programmers”), but after seeing what Corel and Stormix had to offer a couple were convinced an evaluation might be in order.

It was impossible to attend COMDEX Canada West and not notice the excitement or hear the buzz about Linux and the Open Source movement. Small Linux-based companies at the show had people asking how to buy in, while publicly traded Linux companies’ stock-ticker quotes were frequently seen on web-browsers.

The real commercial interest can perhaps best be illustrated by noting the 1500% increase in floor-space occupied by Linux vendors this year compared to last, a total amount only slightly less than the space occupied by Microsoft and their partners. Could this be choice we’re beginning to seeing?

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

Software after the Microsoft trial.

An interesting aspect of the Sherman Antitrust Laws, of which Microsoft is charged with breaking in the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit, is that they deal with harm to consumers, not to competitors. How badly Netscape was disadvantaged is irrelevant — the fact that consumers weren’t able to choose which browser they wanted to use is the issue. But the Netscape case was only one example of many. For several years, consumers have had little real choice as to what operating system (OS) manage hardware resources, which Graphical User Interface (GUI) would aid their interaction, what database would store their information or even what word-processor would create their documents. Some would try alternatives, but they were never easy to get and the “rebel users” would somehow always have trouble interacting with those who were using “the standard”.

The DOJ have been successful in showing a pattern of behavior in which Microsoft will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect its lucrative desktop franchise. Since Judge Jackson, hearing the case, has so completely agreed with the DOJ in his Findings of Fact, it is expected the remedies will be quite strong. Even if a settlement is negotiated first, it will re-establish competition to the market or else the DOJ will simply not agree to the terms.

What this will mean to consumers is increased choice in the marketplace, a benefit already being seen. As it became obvious that Microsoft was going to lose the case, a few manufacturers of computers (OEMs) began to offer alternative operating systems like Linux and BeOS pre-installed on their computers. For those OEMs whose customers wanted the Microsoft operating system, a few even (gasp) altered the first power-up sequence to present helpful information to their customers before passing control to the MS-OS, something explicitly disallowed in the OEM agreements with Microsoft.

What were once considered “alternative” choices of OSs and applications will gain (or regain) market share based on capability and merit. Individuals and organizations will choose the tools which best fit their requirements, rather than what is already installed or what everyone else is using. Users of different software packages from completely independent publishers will be able to exchange data seamlessly without knowing, nor caring, what the others are using.

Because of increased network bandwidth becoming available, software will be easy to download and evaluate. Most software won’t even cost any money, but will simply be given away in exchange for market data or advertising opportunities. Further down the time-line, applications won’t entirely reside on the user’s computer, but will instead share the load between the client and a remote server to render the requested services.

The operating system and applications of today should be viewed as the rail-road line and cars of the late 19th century. It has been demonstrated that it benefits society and commerce as a whole if there is open access to all of the railway track, and if the railway cars and all the tracks agree on the displacement of the wheels (or, in other words, inter-operate). Obviously there were absolutely no technical hurdles to this goal, only the resistance of by-gone business models and the same holds true in the software industry.

As of this writing, AOL just bought Time-Warner, Microsoft settled their antitrust case with Caldera for a cool $150 million (officially, many are speculating the true cost was much higher), and IBM made the major announcement that they will be supporting Linux across their entire server line. Inprise will release Interbase 6.0 as Open Source, and Inprise and Corel both plan releases of their major products for Linux early this year.

But despite all this motion forward, or perhaps because of it, the DOJ’s case is still as relevant as ever. Software is today what the rail lines were long ago: the key to our economic future. It is imperative that no one have enough control to fore-close the next great business idea, and consumers have the opportunity to a choise.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.