impressions of fosdem07

February 26th, 2007

What I thought it would be like

If you've ever been to a trade show this will sound familiar to you. Trade shows are marketing stints, it's where companies go to sell their image (and hence their products). It usually goes a little something like this. You have a big open area, like the area of a large supermarket.

This floor is filled with booths, that is a couple of screens to separate it from the next booth, on which they hang a poster or five of the company logo, product catalogs, whatever they want to catch your eye with. Then there' s a desk where the person manning the booth sits. There are a couple of other people standing around the booth, engaging onlookers in conversation about the company/products. All of them wear matching apparel to show you they represent this particular company. The best booths also have some other gimmicks, like computer screens showing a demo of their software or some other kind of demonstration/snapshots of their product in action.

When you go up to the desk, they have all kinds of free stuff for you, like pens, keychains, stickers, candy etc, branded with the company logo.

This is essentially the way I pictured Fosdem to be. Given that it's not a commercial event (or at least for the most part it isn't), it might be a little different. I certainly expected the projects that think of themselves as being the most exciting (KDE, Ubuntu, Fedora etc..) to have some cool demos or whatever that would wow those of us present. Obviously these projects publicize everything they do (so it's not like they need a conference to explain what they are about), thus I thought they would take this opportunity to show off their best features and tricks.

What I found it to be like

I narrowly missed Fosdem last year, which I regreted, so I was looking forward to it for a long time. Out of the two days it is in session, I arrived Saturday at about 12:15 (opening was at 10:00) and stayed until the last talk, which ended at 5pm.

The first thing I was looking forward to was "the floor". Unfortunately, there was no floor. Instead there was a crummy and very crowded corridor which doubled as "a floor". The moment I walked in I was quite lost, it was so crowded that I could see booths, but I couldn't see what they were for or which direction to even go. As I walked around, I realized how they had organized the booths. Actually "booths". They arranged a bunch of tables in a long line, most of which had an A4 sheet taped to it, printed on it the name of the project it was for. Behind the desk were a few people sitting behind laptops. On the desk were some items, like stickers, pens etc.

So... there weren't any actual booths. And they hadn't brought very much with them either, some a single poster with the project's logo, some didn't even have that. The items were not for giveaway, they were for donate-and-get-for-"free". Which ruins the whole point of having free stuff, but I suppose since these aren't rich companies that can afford to give you stuff, it sort of makes sense. And it's kind of in the spirit of open source anyway, you can donate to the projects you like.

The trouble is.. that's it all was. None of the booths actually had anything going on. In most cases the people at the booths were just sitting behind laptops, consumed in their own stuff. I think OpenSUSE had a computer actually turned the other way, with an open document and the words "Try XGL now!" written in it. Well... that's nice, but wouldn't you think OpenSUSE would have a little more to show off than just a plain boring desktop with ripple effects on the screen and XGL which everyone has seen 7 times over? I mean when you go to a certified geek event, what you would expect is shiny hardware, huge screens, fancy graphical effects, software running on exotic hardware etc. The whole idea of booths is that you go up to them and there is something to see/read/try/experience there. KDE, Gnome, Ubuntu, Fedora, Mozilla, they all had nothing at all to show you. O'Reilly was much more interesting, they had brought in lots of books they were selling (and of course geeks love O'Reilly books). The Free Software Foundation was mostly selling clothes with various advocacy slogans, but at least they were trying to engage people in conversation, not consumed in their laptops.

The Gentoo booth was one of the least noteworthy. They had one laptop showing "Gentoo for Mac" on the screen, and that was it. No other materials (well there was a small one page flyer listing the advantages of Gentoo if you count that), and when a guy asked about t-shirts they were apparently sold out. So either they didn't bring any or they didn't bring enough. As a Gentoo user, I'd have to say that was a pretty pathetic showing for the biggest annual European event.

Google was there too, not sure why. I think they had a raffle going, but from Google you would expect some gimmick. All they had was a demo of Google Earth running on a laptop, which isn't open source, and everyone has seen anyway.

There are some pictures to be found here. Notice how a) there are very few shots of the "booths" and b) how they look a lot more like a cake sale. A booth is supposed to look something like this, or this, or this, or this.

Okay, so the booths weren't quite what I expected, but what separates a thing like Fosdem from just a trade show is that you have something for the intellect as well, you have interesting talks. The way they set this thing up is that they have 3 different locations for talks. Then they have a host of other project specific locations where they run talks about that particular project. At the time I arrived, there was actually nothing happening in any of those rooms yet, there was just a talk in the main auditorium, for which I was late anyway. So I strolled around the area and tried to decide which of the later talks to go to.


From 2pm onwards, there were suddenly parallel talks in 17 locations. :eek: I have to question the wisdom of this system, I mean if you find that you would like to attend a few of them, it's very hard to be in multiple places between 2pm and 5:30. I ended up just going to the main auditorium for a talk on ReactOS (which was very technical and not too interesting from a user perspective), then a "lightning talk" on OpenWengo (which was too short to be informative) and then Andrew Morton's talk on the kernel (which again turned out to be quite dull). Of course, I can't say whether the 16 other sessions at that same time were worthwhile or not. :/

By all the noise about Fosdem on Planet KDE, I would actually expect them to put on a good show. I suppose instead of setting up a great booth they went to work on giving good talks, which I didn't attend as I'm physically indivisible.

The verdict

I really wanted to see one of these events, and perhaps I picked the wrong one to attend. In any case, I think I've satisfied my curiosity. What strikes me most is how badly organized it is from a "physical" perspective. You have these tables set up in a narrow corridor, which is flooded with people. At times I actually had to stand aside and let a stream of people pass before I could make my way ahead. The place itself is a university campus, not a very pretty one at that. ULB is clearly in pretty heavy decay, so the hallways were sort of dirty, with paint coming off, crooked walkways on the outside and so on. The auditoriums themselves are in pretty decent shape, at least. Of course, it's a matter of resources and having permission to use university buildings for this, but I can imagine that holding this at our campus in Utrecht would be heaps better in the sense of actually having the necessary space. When you go to a conference, you're not supposed to feel like oxygen is precious, you're supposed to enjoy yourself in a nice location, with good lighting, plenty of space to move around, and a nicely organized "floor". (Needless to say, though, obviously Brussels is a much more interesting city.)

It might be fun for developers who have a chance of getting together and hanging out, but from a user's perspective, unless the talks are dynamite, I don't really see the attraction. Definitely nothing to warrant spending 6 hours on the train. I mean I'm very interested in free software, I use it, I read about it, I'm into a lot of the projects. But coming to Fosdem I don't see much of interest to me, which is surprising. I brought my camera too, thought I would get some nice pictures of the booths, but there was nothing there I would take a picture of.

There's a little feedback form here in the Fosdem program brochure and among other things they ask me to rate the "catering". I have to ask "what catering"? Or maybe the question isn't meant for me, but as far as I'm concerned, the coffee machine in the J building works well and the coffee is quite good, thanks for asking.

For being the biggest annual European open source event I would certainly expect a lot more "magic", in one form or another. I donated 25 bucks to Fosdem for a t-shirt (in a way just to feel like it wasn't a total loss), so in that I encourage them to keep at it and improve, but I don't think I'll be coming back.

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5 Responses to "impressions of fosdem07"

  1. Ian Monroe says:

    Well yea, I think the main point of events like Fosdem is to meet the people you know online in the real world.

  2. erik says:

    Well I'm just glad I didn't go to spend money on a train fare that I couldn't really afford. It's a shame tho...

  3. Hi Martin. Sad you didn't enjoy the event -- almost everyone does, actually ;-)
    Shiny location, shiny booths.. indeed, the ULB isn't the most beautiful venue for organizing such an event, but: it is in Brussels, which is quite easy to reach from most parts of Europe (be it by train, plane or car) and there are people coming from all around Europe (and even some from the US).
    Another thing is that FOSDEM works well because we have low costs and we don't have to spread our legs to accept any sponsor with any conditions just to have enough cash to rent a location that provides the shine (maybe you didn't notice but unlike many other events, we don't host marketing talks from sponsors).
    While none of us would state that the event is perfect (I guess none is anyway), we are working hard to improve the organization and the experience every year. It is organized by a team of volunteers, which I'm part of, and we don't get a single eurocent for what we are doing. Just to give you an idea, we start working on it in September. But not everything is under our control and we have to live with some constraints, most of them being the location.
    Nevertheless, FOSDEM is specifically about giving FOSS projects a place to do talks, workshops, meet in real life, create synergies, etc...
    About the booths and the Developer Rooms: we just provide some space to the projects that request some and what is done in there is their job (but indeed, I'm somewhat puzzled about what Google did show off, they were

  4. Ian Monroe says:

    oh and heh, I would also refer you to the title. Free and Open Source *Developers* European Meeting.

  5. numerodix says:

    Indeed, Ian :) However I thought since it's such a big event, it would be targeted at users as well..