When Did Silliness Win a Battle Against MS?

I’m trying not to be a gnarled, grizzly, burnt-out old hack, I really am. But I just don’t know how much more of the cute factor I can handle. I mean, it’s almost embarrassing. The next thing you know IBM Corp. CEO Lou Gerstner will have little Hello Kitties on his desk. You get the feeling Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Lew Platt is being drummed out of office because he refused to wear a heart-shaped IYQ! lapel pin.

I’m referring to the whole ridiculous Linux thing. I don’t mean that Linux itself is ridiculous — obviously, the open source operating system is a fine piece of work that really does appear to be a viable alternative to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT in the enterprise. I mean I’ve had it with the stupid penguin. I can’t figure out why an operating system needs an adorable little cartoon mascot.

As I understand it, the penguin mascot came to be because Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, happens to be particularly fond of penguins. I suppose we can all be thankful that Linus doesn’t have a thing for something really disgusting like maggots or cockroaches, because penguins are certainly pleasant enough to look at. But I still don’t see the point. And why give Microsoft the opportunity to capitalize on the obvious metaphor? I can hear it now: “Linux: the operating system that will never fly.”

And this Linus character. I don’t know who’s more annoying — Linus or the scary, wacko Linux developers who idolize him.

For starters, you have a guy who names an operating system after himself. What’s up with that? Even Gates didn’t make us have to choke down BillOS.

Then there was Linus’ big speech at this month’s LinuxWorld event in San Jose, Calif. There he was addressing 6,000 embarrassingly enamored geeky developer fans, and what does he say to them? “Basically I’m a lazy person deep down inside, and I don’t care a lot about all you people. But I like doing something technically challenging, and that’s why Linux came to be.”

What a creep. And yet the groveling developers eat it up. “It’s like when Catholics go and see the Pope,” one reportedly said. “Linux developers like to see Linus in person.” Barf.

But perhaps what’s silliest of all about the whole Linux phenomenon is the way all the big vendors — with the likes of IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle Corp. leading the pack — are clamoring to be seen as being Linux-friendly. It’s like a bunch of stodgy old farts trying to show how hip they are by going to the big party, but without being able to dance.

The impression I got after speaking with a number of IBM managers, developers and marketing types in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago was that the marketing people are bending over backwards to send out the message that IBM is embracing Linux, but it’s almost impossible to pin anyone down on specific plans and time frames. It seems they know they have to jump on the bandwagon, but nobody knows why.

There’s no shame in being caught up in the excitement of a new technology or an alternative to the status quo. But if Linux is to really fulfill the dream that so much of the industry has — to be released from the shackles of Microsoft — it needs to be approached with a lot more intelligence and a lot less silliness. Otherwise it might just as well be OS/2.

Tennant is editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. His e-mail address is Don_Tennant@idg.com.hk.