Jeremy Allison Column Archives

The Low Point — a View from the Valley — Column 20

Fear and Loathing in Cupertino

“We were somewhere outside Silicon Valley, when the marketing message began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge lawyers in black turtlenecks, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Cupertino.”

I get invited to give lots of talks at conferences; it's part of the job really. I tend to turn down most of them: unless it's something that has a clear connection with Samba, or it's a place I've never been before, or it's somewhere I have to go anyway. This is why I almost always speak at Linux World London in order to get a free trip to see the Sheffield relatives.

So I wasn't too surprised when I got an invitation to speak at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco. The timing was a little inconvenient. Linux World, which was also in San Francisco, was scheduled for the week after. Due to being the host of the Golden Penguin Bowl quiz show, this is the most stressful part of my year. Creating the costumes and questions is hard. But because it was Apple, and I was asked by an engineering manager there I get on with very well, I decided to do it.

Historically I've had a “love-hate” relationship with Apple. They love themselves and I hate them. But since they've adopted FreeBSD, a Free Software operating system, for the basis of MacOS X and also started to ship Samba as part of their basic software packages, I've had a lot more time for them. I even try and make sure they get notified of any Samba security problems ahead of time so they don't get blindsided if we have to release a security patch.

I negotiated with the manager which one of my current technical talks I was going to give, and he seemed happy enough with the content; even though it was the same talk I was planning to use at Linux World the next week. I was pretty sure I could get away with it as the attendees at an Apple show wouldn't be seen dead slumming it at a Linux conference. All seemed well until I got a strange email message asking me to turn up for a “rehearsal” meeting in Cupertino the next week.

Rehearsals in the technical trade show talk circuit are unheard of. Normally you just turn up on the day, give your talk and then hang out eating the free food in the speaker room. I don't even get a rehearsal slot for the Golden Penguin show, which is another reason it's so damn stressful. I don't get a chance to try out the scripted jokes before I have to do them in front of a live audience (don't tell me you thought I improvised that stuff). Still I try to be cooperative so I agreed to spend the afternoon at the Apple Campus in Cupertino.

I showed up on a beautiful sunny California afternoon, with my laptop in hand. I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I'd just got the new SuSE 3-D OpenGL Linux desktop working on it, and was looking forward to showing off to the Apple engineers with the spinning cube, wobbly windows, built-in zoom function and other pointless eye-candy effects. It's a nice change to have the most attractive looking desktop on a Linux box; previously us poor Linux users used to look hungrily at the feast of Apple desktop effects on display on a Mac.

After introductions I went along to the presentation room where I met the other Apple engineers speaking in the “Network Improvements” section of the show. It was an impressive line up with Brent Callaghan (one of the designers of NFSv3) and Guy Harris, who is also one of the main coders working on the Ethereal network sniffer. They both liked the flashy new OpenGL desktop. But there was a guy sat at the back of the room I wasn't immediately introduced to. He didn't say much, and I soon forgot he was there. Until the presentations began.

I was scheduled last, so got to watch Brent, Guy, and others do their stuff. But they didn't get five minutes into their slides before the chap at the back chimed up. He criticized everything. No detail was too small for him to bring up and request changes, from the font sizes to the exact meanings of the words they'd used on their slides. He was from Apple Marketing. I waited my turn, then stood up, connected my Linux Laptop to the projector and gave my usual spiel. There was a short pause as I awaited the response.

“Very nice, very nice” he cooed. “You've obviously done this before. What does everyone else think ?”.

“Well we like it, that's why we asked him”, said Brent. Thank you, thank you, I worded silently to myself.

“But you'll have to change all your slides, and run the presentation on a Mac, of course.” finished Mr. Marketing.

“I don't think so”, I replied.

The temperature in the room dropped several degrees. He fixed me with a glassy-eyed stare. Apple and I were at war.

“Then you won't be allowed to present at our show”.

I suddenly realized. He thought they were doing me a favor by allowing me to present there. “So this is what they mean by 'faith-based' marketing”, I thought. And with that, the meeting was over.

I should explain that I commonly add bits of movie stills or posters, or photos I've found (and sometimes modified) on the Internet to my slides in order to liven them up for the audience. Technical talks are deadly dull without something to amuse. In my opinion this falls under the “fair use” of Copyright law. Apple had other ideas about that, but then again this is the company that promotes the widest use of “Digital Restrictions Management” (DRM) in the world. Apple revenues depend on copyright lock-down and removal of fair use rights from customers. What else is their iTunes Internet music store but a perfect example of this.

One of the downsides of being invited to give lots of talks at conferences, is that if you're not careful you might start thinking of yourself as someone who has the right to present at conferences, someone who is important. Or as my wife likes to tell me, “you arrogant pig!”. I know too many Open Source project leaders who are very smart, but have horrible personality problems (arrogance being one of the most obvious faults). People in this line of work should remember that we're really plumbers, whose work is appreciated best when it's not noticed at all. Because it just works. No one thinks about inviting a plumber until the toilet overflows.

So in that spirit I called the engineering manager at Apple and compromised. “I'll remove the material your marketing people are worried about from the slides, and I'll replace it with something I'll create instead”. Sometimes it's handy to be able to use the Gimp (the Gnu Image Manipulation Program). But I didn't want to compromise on running the presentation on my Linux laptop. “It's like this”, I explained, “Novell paid for the work I'm talking about, they sponsored all of it by paying me. It doesn't seem right for Apple, who are just using this work for free after all, to require I advertise an Apple product when I present it. Plus, my desktop is much cooler”.

“No problem”, he said. “I'm sure we'll get this sorted out before the conference. I'll talk to marketing”.

It wasn't enough. I ended up going on a customer trip to St. Louis instead, to fix some problems with the Samba integration on the desktop. Good honest plumbing work, the kind I get paid for.

It wasn't until later, giving the same presentation at Linux World that I'd missed giving at the Apple show, that I realized that Apple were scared of the SuSE Linux desktop I was using. They didn't want customers to see anything other than Apple-badged everything at their show. Especially if it was something better. They were scared of their customers even seeing a choice.

There are other companies who behave like this, and thinking about it I understood. Apple is a record company. Just look at iTunes and the iPod and it becomes obvious. They'll be much happier when they can get rid of all this troublesome computer stuff and get down to the core business of record companies, which is suing their own customers.

Now if you'll excuse me I've got to empty the trunk of my car. I never did get to the ether.