Back in December 2010, I wrote that we were ending our 10 year old event – FOSS.IN – and I promised that I would write more after FOSS.IN/2010 was over. Here we go.
Without any reservations, I can state that the last ever FOSS.IN was an astounding success. It went off far better than we could have hoped. Not just in terms of the number of people who showed up, but in the sheer quality of the talks, the exciting WorkOuts, the amazing amount of socialising that happened, and of course the ear-splitting finale, with Raghu Dixit literally getting everyone to their feet as they said goodbye to our 10 year old baby.
During and after FOSS.IN/2010, an unbelievable number of people came and talked to us, telling us how much they enjoyed the event, how much they had learned over the years, and how sad they were that the event was going away. Many urged us to continue the event, but, as I had written, FOSS.IN had served its purpose, and I can assure you that there is no way FOSS.IN is coming back.
This post is to help you understand why.
One thing I have been doing over the years is try and figure out why FOSS.IN was so successful. After all, there were many other annual events like it, many claiming to be “competing” with us (something we never understood – how do FOSS events “compete”?)
What I basically arrived at was that it was not so much just the content of our event, but a great team that had worked together for more than a decade, focus, no selling/marketing from the stage (a very common occurrence in “tech conferences”), great practical (and less ideology/advocacy) content, the chance to socialise with not just peers from across India, but from across the world, etc. This, in turn, resulted in a large number of participants (both speakers and delegates) pouring in from across India and abroad, which kind of led to the “critical mass” the event needed to grow.
And grow we did.
At one point in our history, we were battling with audiences that were almost 3000 strong – so large that we had to move the event to large public grounds with custom hangars as halls, just to be able to accommodate them! (To be honest, that was a nightmare we never wanted to experience again).
That year (2005) was a kind of a watershed point for us, because that was when we decided that we wanted to be more focused – and we chose to focus more on getting people to contribute to FOSS, rather than just use it. Focus on the technology and developers, rather than on people who just wanted to use it. Not that there was anything wrong with the latter, but there were other events for that.
It took a couple of iterations, but eventually, we got it right. Participants came to FOSS.IN not to “wave flags”, but to participate in the process, learn about new technologies, interact with other developers, conceive new projects etc. And unlike other technical events, we weren’t focused only one topic, but many – which is why you could find developers using python and php, mysql and postgres, linux and bsd, etc. meeting and interacting under one roof. As the MBA-types like to say – it was a “holistic experience”
Hitting the Ceiling
In the end, it was this success that was also FOSS.IN’s undoing. While the crowds just kept increasing, it also became increasingly hard to restrict people to stay within the FOSS parameters. For example – how can you restrict a hacker developing an Open Source GSM implementation from discussing the more proprietary parts of the technology that he had to interact with to make things work? How do you tell an Open/LibreOffice developer not to discuss Microsoft Office or its document formats, or not to address the inter-op concerns of users when they needed to exchange documents with people using proprietary software? How do you stop someone developing a web-service to ignore the needs of users coming in from non-PC devices on proprietary platforms?
Then there were the ridiculous, artificial limits that some people liked to impose. For example, time and again we had to pull up people at the event when they mocked other participants who were there with their Windows laptops, who had come to learn how to get involved in FOSS projects, or understand FOSS technologies. Things like this were completely unacceptable – it restricted the number of people who could enjoy being at the event, and created unnecessary friction.
In the end, it all became a bit too much – we didn’t want to act as referees, dictating who could come to our event, or what they could discuss. We were providing a platform for technology exchange and discussion, not a way to differentiate one technology enthusiast from another, and keep them from interacting.
This all hit me pretty hard when, in 2009, someone told me “I don’t come to FOSS.IN because it is about FOSS alone. I come there because it is a great technology event, and I can meet many like-minded people, interact with them, learn new stuff, etc.”
FOSS.IN had changed from being a “small, regional event” for FOSS enthusiasts (as some people called us back in the early days) that it was back at the turn of the century, to becoming a full fledged technology event.
With a huge problem.
What’s in a Name?
I recently tweeted that if I ever heard someone say “What’s in a name?”, I’d go postal. Few people realised why I was so frustrated, or that this frustration went back several years.
In 2005, we had a sponsor drop out at the last moment because of the name FOSS.IN (until 2004, we called ourselves “Linux Bangalore”). The reason was that while Linux was becoming more and more mainstream, being used all over the place, “FOSS.IN” apparently had far more limiting implications. For one, the drop-out sponsor had clients that objected to the company sponsoring an event that talked about “Free” stuff – apparently bad for business!
This was seriously ironic. We had changed out name from “Linux Bangalore” to “FOSS.IN” because we wanted to signal the increase in our scope – not just Linux, but anything Free & Open Source, and not just Bangalore, but for Indians, or anyone who wanted to interact with Indian FOSS folks.
Over the years, other limitations started to surface. While many FOSS.IN participants “got it” and were inclusive of other technologies (after all, no person – or technology – is an island ), we were constantly under pressure from “interested parties” to “crack down” on “offenders” who would show up at the event with Windows laptops or Macbooks, and on people who would present a Point of View from the proprietary side, targeted at getting better inter-op in place between FOSS and proprietary technologies.
Last year, I said this:
And we also realised that an event, called “FOSS.IN”, could never address other parts of the ecosystem, which included general technology as well as proprietary systems, financial systems and “non-political” aspects of the technology world.
Apparently, a technology conference named “FOSS.IN” could not address anything but what fitted into the narrow, constricted frame of reference provided by some people.
“Simple”, I hear some of you say. “Why didn’t you just rename the conference?”
Because it doesn’t quite work that way, because “A rose by any other name…”
We did it in 2005 (when we changed from “Linux Bangalore” to “FOSS.IN”), but there was no way we could do this again and get away with it.
And that is why we ended the conference series. For good.
There have been comments about “why don’t you hand it over to some other group of people to continue?”. The answer is fairly simple – which group? There is no event in the country that is run the way we used to run FOSS.IN, and honestly, why bother? It’s just a name! Please feel free to start your own FOSS conference, with a unique name, and a unique approach, and run it the way we did. I’ll even come and speak at your conference, or advise you on any matters where you need help (except raising money – that is something you have to do yourselves).
As the ad goes – “build your own road”