IT.COM 1999

They came, they saw, they believed

Madhu "Gandalf" M. Kurup

Photos of the event

In the beginning, there was this Finnish student who wanted some information on an old boring Unix like operating system. "Hello Netlanders" are the words, it is whispered when these and other legends originated. From there, to here is a long story. This story is but one tiny part of that epic.

Linux as an operating system has had a relatively limited impact in India. IT.COM represented the first major step for broad based Linux awareness in India. And behind all that happened was a lot of discussions, flames and mail between various people and on Blr list and the Linux India list. The Bangalore Linux User's Group met at Hotel Ashraya on the 30th to discuss Linux India @ IT.COM. Apart from Engg exams being on at the same time, the impending work must have played on the minds of everyone, for the attendance at this LUG was the lowest in recent times. Apart from a rapid fire install of RH6.1 by Kishore Bhargava, the meeting was mostly an exhaustive and long round up of the plans for IT.COM by Atul Chitnis. The floor was thrown open and suggestions, plans and activities chalked out. Some volunteers volunteered. Some others volunteers were forced to volunteer. Some plans were fixed, others left in abeyance. Special instructions on how to or how not to bash <that is indeed my favorite shell, folks!> operating systems that doze were also discussed.

All volunteers were asked to report to Electronic City on the 30th to help assemble the stall together. That assembling proceeded with its expected chaos and confusion. From there on, this is a rough account of the happenings at IT.COM. It's not so simple to provide a day by day snapshot of what happened, for the simple reason that each of the volunteers present saw a different side of the day. So, this precis seeks to capture the flavor of each day. In order to simplify our life as well as those of the visitors who were to arrive, the Linux India stall was divided into sections dealing with specific areas of interest. These included Linux @ Home, Linux @ Work, Linux @ ISP, Linux @ Development, Linux @ Gov. and a special Installation section.

The first day was both tepid and educational. Apart from a mysterious power cut that afflicted only the Linux pavilion <conspiracy theories, anyone?> that allowed some of the volunteers to walk around the rest of enemy territory <namely ALL the other pavilions.... ;-)> to the questions and doubts of the people who walked in, everything was low key. This included machines that stubbornly refused to boot, to people who wanted to buy only the iMac monitor - this day saw nearly every extreme that was not expected! It also saw the iMac's running MacOS in a Linux pavilion, with people saying "Ooh, Linux is soo cool!" with the MacOS happily executing a math application! The first day , November 1st was Rajyotsava - the day Karnataka came into existence. Thus, it was a general holiday. This added to the fact that it was the first day meant that there was a lot of general junta out to check out IT.COM.

Most of the default questions centered around how people could join "us". To which, we promptly sent them to the LI site or asked them to join the LUG Blr. It's something that would interest us all, if we could be able to track the membership increase during and after IT.COM, because many people were really surprised to see Linux alive and kicking in India. At one end of the Linux India stall, an interesting little setup was rigged that allowed interaction with a much larger audience. This was a machine with no monitor, except that it's output was led to a LCD projector which threw its image onto a huge screen. This was used apart from other things for an install demo to prove how simple <!> it is to install Linux. In addition, through the days, presentations on Linux and its usage were conducted here. Also demonstrated was StarOffice <including a very mystifying NFS based install!> and it's ease of use. These sessions were a major draw with large crowds sticking around the stall to see Atul, Gopi and Kishore work their magic. This install also included an impromptu question and answer session that increased the feedback considerably. To add, Kishore would wander around looking for people to 'catch' for them to install on the projector, so this time generally meant that volunteers looked really busy!!!

One of the most crowded sections at the pavilion was the one devoted to installations. The poor harassed volunteers at this stall have probably installed those machines approximately a 100 times by the time the exhibition was over. To add to the general fun, they indulged in shocking things like pulling the plug on an installing machine, detaching components and answering a 100 questions a day on SiS6215C <anyone heard that before? ;-)>.

One of the most spectacular displays that attracted a lot of attention was a text mode (SVGA text mode only!) program called bb that showed off some amazing graphic capabilities. The folks had even rigged up a Doom setup that allowed you to play in text mode. Mind blowing. Hyderabad's loss was Bangalore's gain as Khader shifted base to Bangalore during IT.COM. He could only be here on the first two days, but remained the only person who claimed install familiarity with Debian !

The second day saw crowds increase significantly. Amongst the many other things that were the pride and joy, the volunteers most enjoyed the real life "let's do it" attitude of the Linux India stall. One 'gentleman' walked up to the iMac folks and promptly proclaimed that Linux would perform miserably under heavy network load. Fine, let's try was the response. After setting up a x11amp client running a couple of songs, the poor iMac was relentlessly pinged from every other machine in sight that could be freed. In this ping storm, the iMac continued to play flawlessly. "Sorry" said the gentleman - "You guys started the MP3 player before network traffic started!!". Fine, let's do it your way, was the response. The volunteers then shut everything down, started the ping storm and then ran the MP3's through. No difference. Well, this round to Linux.

The second day also saw the beginning of the heightened interest in VMware. We had one poor machine <incidentally KD's dream machine!> which was running Glade<an X-Windows RAD tool>, KDevelop <the ultimate C/C++ GUI based IDE>, and VMware running Windows 95. We also had a couple of virtual screens devoted to some multiple copies of Netscape that were lying around. All of these applications worked perfectly well, with NO deterioration in speed or performance! The poor machine was really stress tested. However, most of the time we would be struggling to find the VMware screen considering we used to minimize Windows 95 <Freudian slip?> and forget where we had left it! It was mind-blowing to watch VMware boot up with it's little software emulated lights for the floppy and the Ethernet card blink on as the machine started up - we even surfed via Internet Explorer and setup a permanent link to the LI site from inside Win95. Pretty cool, huh? Poor Kalyan deserves a big thanks for all the trouble he took to set up the machine, though!

The third day witnessed a qualitative increase in the kind of questions and people who were walking into the Linux pavilion. The spirit of learning was still very much in the air. The Linux @ Development stall was under a storm when someone came around and asked for X windows programming under KDevelop. Considering that most of the volunteers had never used KDevelop before, we were all stuck. One of the folks who asked the question puttered around with KDevelop and eventually developed an X Window equivalent of a "Hello World" program. We promptly smiled, said that it proved that KDevelop was intuitive and easy to use, thanked the gentleman in question for helping us, and moved on! Another gent at the Linux @ Home section asked for the speed of surfing on Linux. As a demo, we opened up a free email site <, in case, you were curious!> and the man keyed in his login name and password. Well, he had NO idea we were working off a 512kbps link, did he? The connect blazed and he walked away suitably<!> impressed about the speed of the OS, another Linux convert - the ends justify the means, or do they?

The most unhyped but highly amazing setup in the whole of the Linux India pavilion (as opposed to the iMac, I assume) was a small little development machine that was setup completely by Prof. Bhat. He had been busily at work downloading all the sources using the huge and speedy link that we had been blessed with. This was a finally demonstrated on the last three days. It was a plain old cross compiler, something that tinkering around with egcs and other compilers lets you create. Well what was it doing? It was creating Windows binaries (i.e. all you need to do is to copy them to a Windows partition and they will run perfectly well!) from a Linux box! Simple, huh, Windows executables - bit to bit perfect. The solution on where to run them in the Linux India pavilion is pretty easy to solve. Your create programs on Linux, that can execute only on a Windows platform considering they use the Win32 API, so you run them on VMware...neat twist to a whole host of problems, what do you say?

The third day also saw some irate customers of RH6.1 waving their CD's under the noses of the volunteers. Well, to put it mildly, the ghost of the SiS cards had returned. During the first two days, folks regularly walked in to the Linux stall and openly threw down a challenge - "Linux is OK, but X windows does not work on my machine". Only to be met with an equally calm - "SiS card?" as a question. The dumbfounded, incredulous looks that we received on being perceived as soothsayers and astrologers needs to be seen to be believed. Well, most of the time, we'd just grin and say experience! Well, we all <notable exceptions Kishore, Atul, PCQ...> believed that Rh6.1 solved the infamous SiS6215C. So we directed them to the GT Enterprises stall where RH6.1 was on sale. Well that belief quickly changed to disbelief. Confirmation with Kishore revealed that only the PCQ CD had any info about THE SiS card. So, all the volunteers quickly changed their tune from "RH6.1 is the solution" to "PCQ RH6.1 the solution". As an interesting aside to this story, PCQ could only sell their magazines from the 4th onwards. To put it mildly, with all the talk on the LI list on how even the PCQ CD is struggling with the 6215C card, the volunteers really got away. It is indeed interesting to imagine what would be our plight if someone had bought the PCQ CD and then complained about the SiS card. Mass suicide would have been one honorable alternative out!

Apart from many other things that tend to stick in one's mind, one man's question stays with me. After listening to me expound the power and potential of Linux for quite some time, he shocked me with a question that still reminds me not to assume any kind of default information. He simply asked me how long I would be working with Linux Inc., for he wanted to talk to me with reference to his special need. Well, to answer that question honestly I told him about Linux India and how we were all volunteers and how we were here, not because of anything else, except a love for the OS. And that how I hope, I'd "be" with Linux Inc. hopefully for the rest of my life. :-). It was indeed a humbling experience to be able to stand in front of someone and state that there is NO "Linux Inc". There is no huge organization, with resources, finances, support engineers and the works to back me up. There is no publicity, no advertisements, and no money. There is no organization with hundreds of software engineers coding a better, faster and more user friendly product. Just ordinary folks like you and me with commitment and enthusiasm. Remember, that the next time you use Linux, even as a small time user, there is a hell of a lot that you represent.

This is probably a good time to talk about the various kinds of most Frequently Asked Questions at IT.COM. This is not so much a Hey, how could someone ask that session? or a time to feel slighted or ignorant if your question is here. Flicking shamelessly in part from a mail by Prof. Bhat, here are some of the most erudite and hilarious versions of the most oft repeated questions. These FAQ's have been added to this article so that we might be able to convey to others, the difficulties of people standing outside the Linux community making sense of our wonderful world, as well as our own difficulties in conveying this brave new world to outsiders . Thus, this is a time when we have to reflect on how easy it is for us to understand the way we feel, and how difficult it is for us to communicate it <and communicate it well> to the general public. The Numero Uno:

1) So....(deep breath, shy darting eyes) What is this (sic) Linux ?

This was probably the most repeated and towards the-end-of-exhibition-time torture question. In order to get around, most of us would do a bit of explanation and then throw the initiative back, by asking "What do you want to do on Linux" and then pack the poor soul off to the required section. In addition considering that Linux @ Gov. and Linux @ Development were very close to the start of the LI Stall, a lot of the questions hit us folks hard.

2) Are you the guys who want to throw out Microsoft ?

Most people seemed well aware of how other OSs dislike <!> Linux. Most people either directly or indirectly seemed to want to provoke us into saying something stupid <like the truth?> about our friendly contemporaries. But, you can recognize a rabble rouser a mile away and you anger him to no end, by maintaining a Zen like calm and serene "We are all about choices..." approach. ;-).

3) Who is paying for all this ?

This is to also clear up another question - folks wandered around and asked us what we had to sell ? Generally most of us smart ass alecks replied with the words "A concept!" . They also found it surprising that inspite of being funded by PCQ, we would also point them towards stalls where they could obtain Caldera, Red Hat or Suze versions. While we later recommended the PCQ CD for what we then believed <in innocence?!?> was a trouble free SiS install, we also stayed true to the credo of Linux by offering choices - every distro. was given equal attention - the real option was always left in the hands of the visitor.

4) If nobody's paying you to be here, why are you doing it ? Is this some cult or what ?

This has to be seen in the context of another question - "How do I get that cool T-shirt / Cap / Button / <Insert your favorite Linux goodie here>?". One of the volunteers accidentally revealed that he had taken 5 days earned leave from work to be here to work for Linux. That nearly set off the person going Obelix style tapping-the-side-of-head - "These Linux people are crazy!"

5) If Linux is supposed to be free, why is that stall over there (pointing to GT) *selling* it ?

Again with reference to "Why aren't you giving away Linux free?", "How do people make money from Linux?", and other allied monetary questions. Most of the time, though, Open Source was accepted fairly well. However, a bearded balding gentleman simply refused to accept or even consider the concept of open source. Realizing that talking of 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' or 'Homesteading the Noosphere' would probably invite a 'The same to you too' or some equally shocking insult, we quietly escaped by explaining it away in terms of service, support and other allied devices. In any case, OGL was something that most people remain perplexed about.

6) How is Linux different from <insert your favorite<or otherwise!> OS> / Unix ?

Again, a delicate <my favorite shell is bash!> question to answer. Some general responses included the open nature of Linux code, speed, stability, technology and most importantly COST. Most of the time, we also sanguinely spoke of LEGAL software and the complete, overwhelming and immediate need to obey and not violate any and all of the software piracy laws. Did I mention that Linux is under OGL and therefore free?

Some of the other amazing questions that need to make it here, but can't deserve much more space include - "If Linux is so good, how come it doesn't run on Windows ?" What do I say..., I'm speechless. Here is another one - "How come such a big server <pointing to IBM's Net Infinity 7000> has such a small screen?". Pointing to the Quake2 demo, "How come there are games on Linux?" was a rare specimen that I wanted to say a couple of things to, but wisely refrained from. Finally, well what about "My Sis6215C card works only in 1280x1024 mode?" Well, well, I was faking that one, just wanted to check if you were reading right!

It was also on this third day that the volunteers discovered that Quake2 on Linux is pretty much an interesting demonstration tool. As we sagely pointed out to most folks, deathmatch via Quake2 is a fine demonstration of high end graphics, fast networking and the speed of the operating system. Did I mention that's it's also a whole LOT of fun? Amidst all the blood and gore, Kardemon <a handle for ... :-)> stole the show with his reflexes and superior killing ability <entirely unrelated to his dreadful and plentiful puns!>. Soon, nearly everyone was logged on with their favorite handles, killing each other with frenzied glee! To add to the jazz, the system hooked up with the projector was one of the nodes, so all the other players had to do was to look over their monitors, see what the poor unfortunate was seeing, and thereby find out where he was, track him down and murder him!

This is of course in addition to countless incidents of a deathmatch running really close, when someone walks up to you and asks you, "What is Linux?" or "What are you doing?" with a angelic little expression. By the time you compose yourself and a sensible, printable reply on the lines of "Linux is a operating......", your screen disappears in a haze of red, for someone just fried you out! Your expression is nothing close to angelic, while someone, somewhere else screams for joy, having increased their frag count by one! The author himself has suffered playing at the projector screen with people tending to walk right across in front of the projector - you would be chasing and killing someone when all of a sudden the entire screen goes blank <the person has walked right into the projector's light path!> and when sanity returns, you find the guy you were previously chasing, is now doing a flip over your dead body. Not conducive to sensible thinking, believe me!

The fourth day was the day of the triumph of the Linux India stall. Everyday the crowds had been increasing. Well, on the fourth day all hell broke loose. We truly had completely unmanageable crowds. People kept streaming in an unending queue. As another sidelight, that day our pavilion had the largest queue in the entire exhibition. For all those who visited IT.COM and how what distances we are talking about, it started from the Linux pavilion, went to the cafeteria and doubled back. For all those who were not here, that's a HUGE distance. Well, and all this for a boring old Unix based operating system? We sure weren't complaining at all! The public announcement system also added to our delight when it urged people not to spend TOO much time in one pavilion and to keep walking and let other people enjoy the pavilion(s).

The public announcement system also provided us with much comic relief through the days via priceless gems such as

"the receptionist is urgently required at the reception!"

"there is a psychiatrist in the exhibition, he is required urgently at the reception"

"You cannot make private announcements, please do not lose yourself or your friends!"

Some of the volunteers also argued for the Linux stall to ask for announcements on the lines of "Tux is required at the LI stall immediately", "Where does Tux want to go today?" or "We Bill you for the media alone, not the software" and various other descriptions of household items such as doors, windows, etc, which are generally unprintable, but completely and unbelievably hilarious.

Another incident sought to reaffirm Atul's initial belief in the kind of difficulty that we would face understanding people. A young guy who walked in with problems in quote "compiling source" unquote. Starting from the concept of Open Source, right up to Makefiles and compiler optimizations, all the relevant facts were explained, only to find him unhappy and unsatisfied. He was then lead to KD, who further confused him with oodles of information that was so obviously flying over his head. He was then extracted quietly, taken to a corner of the development section and stepped through a quick "Hello World" C compile. At this his eyes boggled and he was last seen wandering away from the Linux pavilion muttering "cc is the command", "cc is the command" in order to memorize it. Well, you can't say we didn't try...

In addition to some default stress testing by the volunteers, some of the visitors also provided some interesting insights. One visitor pulled up a chair and plonked himself down on it, wanting to test how crash proof Linux was. Promptly the screen went blank and the machine began rebooting. We all were shocked until the guy sheepishly confessed to having pressed the Reset button by accident! In another similar incident, someone managed <how!?!> to loosen a keyboard leading to a weird problem of the machine being active, the mouse being active, but with all appearances of a system crash. Believe me, it took us quite some time to hunt down the cause to the loosened keyboard connector!

The end of the day saw some excitement for the volunteers for we were all invited to the PCQ Reader's Choice Awards. All of us traveled together, sat together and generally had a great time. Apart from loudly cheering at the presence of Linux <Third position> at the Network Operating System category, we also endeared ourselves to the anchor of the show Aly Khan. The poor man had a prepared script that asked rhetorical <funny?> questions to the audience. While introducing the Anti Virus category he challenged the audience with a "Who has not had a virus attack in the last six months?". All the Linux volunteers, sitting together <last row of the show, back benchers may I add!> loudly proclaimed our Virus free states and our Virus free machines, completely befuddling Aly Khan who obviously needed a crash course in Linux! On the other hand, the suave Nafisa Joseph endeared herself to the volunteers. She enquired about the status of Tally's ongoing Linux port! <While I'd like to add other reasons as to why she endeared herself to the volunteers, this is a Linux based article, so you'll have to forgive me... and let your imagination go wild>. As we were having dinner together, we realized that apart from members of the LUG Blr, we also had representatives from other LUGs making this event a truly Linux India dinner. Hats off to all the folks from the other LUGs who could take the time and spare the effort to be here!

After the fourth day, we were pretty much sure that the last day would bring with it huge crowds. Well, some amongst us sagely spoke of the cricket match - they were proved right. The last day saw just moderate crowds, by the standards of the fourth day. Some of us sitting around in the morning were talking of an "official" visit of Tux to all the other pavilions. With the crowds thinning down at around 11, and official <Atul as in PCQ?!?> permission in place, we borrowed GTE's huge stuffed Tux as well as some diminutive versions of the entirely adorable penguin. The largest Tux we seated on a chair, which was carried proudly by volunteers. Suddenly before we knew it, a sizeable crowd had formed, and with the strong vocal support of the SGI counter at the Linux pavilion, Tux's victory march was on!

We walked through all the other pavilions, with quiet dignity and solemn faces murmuring slogans and displaying info on Linux India all the way. This was a group of people who walked with an enthroned Tux, just showing to people that the Linux will rule in India! There was no screaming or shouting, no jostling or pushing. We walked softly with sure steps, knowing that we represent a tradition and that if we were to do anything wrong, it would tell on our movement. These objectives we achieved with as much composure and control as we could when we walked into the adjacent pavilion &ltthey chose it, not us!&gt, which contained a company &ltRedmond, USA.....&gt not particularly inclined to like Tux particularly! Our slogans included

"Free your source, free your mind!"

"Power to the people, power to the penguin"

"Today India, tomorrow the world"

"May the source be with you, May the force be with you!"

No bash<again, it's my favorite shell!>ing of anyone or anything took place. :-). Except the face of a certain high ranking employee of a certain high ranked Redmond based software company was worth it when the last slogan was whispered to him, like a catechism or a respectful prayer. Someone asked me, when we were in one of the pavilions, whether this was a protest rally by Linux fans. I replied in the negative, preferring to call it a victory march. The difference is subtle, and can even perhaps be overlooked, but for all of us who walked in that march, the recognition and respect that we received, for being what we were and doing what we did, it makes all the difference. Considering the reaction of most women along the way, I believe it also helps Linux no end to have Tux as part of the Linux logo - something in the placid, contented and plump penguin seems to interest women no end! As a finale, I'd seriously begin to consider conspiracy theories given the complete lack of any press coverage on the Tux march. With the amount of interest and attention that we attracted, I found it completely mystifying how only people present on the final day know about the march of Tux.

To add to all the gaming action, on the final day after the "default" Linux install and star office demo on the projector screen, we had a Quake 2 demo. On the freshly installed machine, we set up Quake 2, got all other 8 players to log on to the machine and got all of them to assemble at one place <identified as the location where you pick up the rocket launcher, in case you were wondering!> and generally showed off how real time Quake 2 was on Linux. To add to the interest, we called on volunteers from the crowd to come and join in the frag feast. Two brave souls dared, not knowing that the volunteers have had two days of practice and tons of skill! One of them was even a newbie to gaming! In any case, without much ado, we sent 'em hurtling and carried on. Then it was more a question of which of the volunteers would win. I'm not telling, except that I believe that Shanu really didn't get a chance to play as much as he'd like to!

The final day also meant that all the packing and assembling had to take place. We therefore closed shop much earlier than usual and the chaos of the packing resembled the chaos of the unpacking largely. You could regularly hear shouts of "Where's the Cerebra keyboard box, I need that box NOW" or "HOW the **** did this monitor fit into this box!" as the packing work continued. Finally, it was all done. Within an hour, the Linux stall had gone from being active and busy to being desolated, empty and stripped. With Jessie emphatically and superbly marshalling all the resources and equipment together, the packaging was done as well as it could be. To add, a lot of us wanted to flick Jessie's superb LG Dreamworks Monitors <Three huge top-of-the-draw boxes!> except she was rather sweet about it and made us carry them safely into her car!

We all then departed, having made friends, and been able to befriend many others. We had taught some folks, learnt from lots more. The five days gave us more than an opportunity to be able to provide a spark in the beginnings of someone's Linux passion, but it also fed us with commitment and fuel for our own passion. To put it simply, these five days have crystallized in many ways what we really love in and about this OS. It made separated individuals from as far away as Calcutta to Cochin, from Goa to Delhi part of one ethos. We felt and were together. In this age and times, that itself is a blessing. Apart from the usual exchange of email-ids, there was an odd sense of staying in touch, considering that we all still post to or read the list, and considering we all still work for "Linux Inc", we are, I believe here to stay!

Perhaps, in the future, it will be written as "In the beginning, there was this Indian student who wanted some information on Linux..." What are the words, he or she will write, when starting off something <on the Linux India list, perhaps?> no one knows as yet, but if we have been even remotely instrumental in the cause of the next revolution in operating systems or the initial hesitant steps of the Indian equivalent of Linus Torvalds, we would consider ourselves extremely fortunate and very blessed. May the source be with all of us.

So, until we meet again at the next IT.COM or where ever, we have the words of J.R.R. Tolkien to keep with us, when he wrote of Bilbo Baggins - "The Road goes ever on and on".

Scripted by the folks at IT.COM.

Compiled by: Madhu "Gandalf" M Kurup.


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