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The Penguins are Coming

We begin today’s quiz with a ten point question: What do Mohammad Ali, “A Beautiful Mind” author Sylvia Nasar, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., actress/director Penny Marshall, and legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden have in common?

They all make prominent (if brief) appearances in a recent IBM television ad promoting Linux. Interestingly, the ad is titled “Prodigy.”

[This ad and others in the series is available on the Web:]

These five celebrities, plus actors and actresses hired to portray an anthropologist, an astronomer, a corporate executive, a p'et, a soccer player, a pilot, and a plumber, all speak to a young child, each offering a small bit of wisdom. The visuals close as the female voice asks if the child has a name and male voice answers, “his name is Linux.” At the end, as the screen g'es white (not dark!), the text flashes: LINUX–The Future is Open–IBM.

Something is happening here. Yes, IBM supports Linux, as do Dell and HP. The big firms have bought in big, reflecting best guesses (and some very big investments) that there is more than one window into the continually evolving world of information technology.

But think it through: Linux is for techies, right? It has never been promoted as either “user friendly” (the marketing message for MS-DOS when the IBM PC was launched more than twenty years ago) or “insanely great” (Steve Jobs’ catch phrase for the Macintosh).

And on the chance that you might occasionally think about Linux, what comes to mind? Open Source? Content? Free stuff? Shared software? Alternative to Windows? Community? Clearly Linux and Open Source are many things to many people.

What groups are the intended audience for this long (90 second) TV spot? Perhaps the primarily target is corporate CIOs and others in the IT community. IBM’s support for Linux represents the ultimate affirmation of the emerging trend. Also, knowing that IBM now aggressively sells and supports Linux probably provides some comfort for other, non-IT, mid-level and senior corporate execs who are struggling to map the changing landscape of back office technologies as well as emerging corporate and desktop applications.

But what about the rest of us non-techies who are neither Linux/Open Source advocates nor antagonists, but rather somewhat confused agnostics? How do we know if the terrain is really shifting? How should we measure the size and impact of the shift? How soon, if ever, d'es our watching from the distance begin to get up close and very personal if/when Linux becomes the window into data and applications on our individual computers?

It’s a fair guess that Mohammad Ali, Professor Gates, Ms. Marshall, Ms. Nasar, and Coach Wooden probably do not spend much time writing Linux code or even using Linux applications. But their appearance in an IBM commercial about Linux sends a very significant message: look around, take notice, as Linux is beginning to emerge from the back rooms.

I’m one of the agnostics: I know something—Linux—is happening. But I also don’t know how to assess just what is happening and what it means for me, if not now (in 2004) then maybe in 2005 or 2006. So as I watch, I’m also wondering how soon and how fast. And I’m wondering what, if anything, do I do and if or when should I do it?
D'es anyone have a reliable road map or a timetable for us civilians? What about a filter to help us distill the facts from rhetoric that we hear from both advocates and antagonists?

And the penguins? Probably a small stroke of marketing genius that these lovable (non-threatening and decidedly cool) creatures have become a corporate logo and IT community icon for Linux.

The World Book Encyclopedia that my wife and I bought for our children some (pre-Internet) eons ago describes the penguin as an “unusual bird [that] walks with an amusing, clumsy waddle.” That sounds like a good description for Linux in its early years.

But the experience of the past decade suggests that Linux is loosing its waddle as it gains presence on corporate servers and becomes part of the larger conversation about IT applications—in both campus and corporate IT environments and also on user desktops. An early example of desktop deployment is in Brazil, where the Ministry of Education has selected Linux as the operating system for millions of new computers that will go into Brazilian schools over the next few years. So the penguins are coming. And perhaps, coming soon to a desktop near you, will be "open Source for the rest of us."

Editor’s note

Readers may be interested in viewing "An Open Conversation About Open Source," a Webcast moderated by Casey Green. The Webcast was recorded at Syllabus fall2003 in Cambridge, Mass. and archived online, with MIT sponsorship. It is intended for faculty, administrators, and staff who do not write code or have advanced degrees in engineering, but still want to understand the issues that drive the Open Source movement in higher education.

The Webcast features two separate discussions of Open Source in higher education:

Part I. What is Open Source?

—Is it code? Is it content?
Is it shared applications?

Panelists: MS Vijay Kumar, Ed Walker, and Phillip D. Long

Part II. The OpenCourseWare
Initiative at MIT

—Open Source in curriculum
and community

Panelists: Ann Margulies and Steve Lehrman

To view the Webcast, visit:

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