Midnight Linux Rally Greets Launch of Windows 98

From Thursday, June 25, 1998
Originally Published in the Netly News

Nathaniel Wice

June 26, 1998

Not everyone yawned at the release yesterday of bug-fixes for Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system, a.k.a. Windows 98. In Silicon Valley, the world's largest Linux users group gave out free copies of their Unix operating system at a midnight rally in front of the legendary computer store Fry's Electronics.

"The rally was pretty spontaneous," says Sam Ockman, the 24-year-old president of Penguin Computing and a figure on the Valley's Linux scene. "I slept in on Tuesday" -- as all 24-year-old presidents should -- "and I was reading the newspaper when I saw a Fry's ad for Windows 98 announcing that stores would be open until 1 a.m." Ockman put the word out online around 3, and by midnight there were 60 people picketing Fry's with placards that declared "Linux -- the Choice of a GNU Generation" and "Don't Pay the Microsoft Tax." (Linux is a flavor of Unix developed with the democratic belief that free, open software is inherently superior because the programming public at large gets to contribute improvements and fix bugs -- as with all versions of Unix, Linux is considered much more stable than Windows, especially for intensive tasks like serving a web site.)

Ockman says, "We tried to be Fry's-friendly" -- some signs told which aisle in Fry's sells a commercial version of Linux -- "but then they called the police." Reached for comment, Fry's executive assistant explained that it is company policy not to talk to the media. Ockman says that plainclothes security guards from Fry's also tried to infiltrate the rally. "Some of the Sunnyvale cops were cool, though -- one of them even took a copy of Linux from us."

All told, Ockman claims that a few hundred copies of Linux were given out in an hour, which also included a trip to a CompUSA. At that outlet the Linux activists used mock-infomercial voices to ply customers standing in line outside the store: "What if we told you our operating system doesn't crash... If you act now, we'll throw in the source code free." "There was a Microsoft person there who got incredibly angry," Ockman recalls, "but the CompUSA manager made a point of coming over and telling us that the store believes in free speech. The contrast was really a surprise given Fry's supposed hacker mystique." Afterward the organizers went back to the office and updated the rally web pages.

Explaining the group's energy, Ockman compared Linux to another OS that once inspired an enthusiastic user base. "It's like Apple was 10 years ago. But this time there's no management that can make missteps to destroy the grassroots movement... Linus Torvalds [the father of Linux] has a slogan for the operating system's supremacy: 'Five years the server, ten years the desktop.' Well, it's been one year and we're right on track."

Copyright 1998