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The Grill: Linus Torvalds in the Hot Seat

The Finnish creator of Linux says open-source software isn't really an anti-Microsoft movement; it's just a better model for getting the job done.

By Peter Moon
October 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Linus Torvalds was only 22 in 1991 when he decided to share with friends and colleagues the code of Linux, the new operating system he had created. The University of Helsinki computer science student couldn't have imagined the revolution his decision was about to ignite.

What did you want from the public release of Linux? It certainly wasn't money, since the original copyright was very strict about that. I didn't think that Linux would become as big and popular as it is now, so it wasn't really fame, either. I'd like to say it was for fun.

Dossier
Linus Torvalds
Name: Linus Torvalds
Title: Linux Foundation fellow and creator of Linux
Organization: The Linux Foundation
Location: Beaverton, Ore.
Last Book Read: Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality
First Job: "I guess you could say that Linux has been my job for a long while now. I was fresh out of the university when I joined Transmeta, so I guess that counts as my first 'real' job."
Childhood dream job: "Scientist. Not that I really thought of it as a 'job.'"
Gadget he can't live without: "I'd like to change that around to 'Gadget I can damn well live without,' the answer being a cell phone. Those things are damn annoying. I dislike even traditional phones (give me e-mail or other message-based mediums anytime), but cell phones just take that irritation to a whole new level."

-- Todd R. Weiss

The releasing itself wasn't particularly fun, but I was really looking for feedback and comments. I was hoping to get people to tell me what they thought needed improvement or what was good, and thus make the project more interesting for me.

It worked beautifully. I've been doing Linux for 16 years, and it's still interesting, exactly because I made it available publicly and asked for feedback.

How did Linux, as a product, benefit by being released as it was? Linux really wouldn't have gone anywhere interesting at all if it hadn't been released as an open-source product. I also think that the change to the GPLv2 from my original ???no money??? license was important, because the commercial interests were actually very important from the beginning. The commercial distributions were what drove a lot of the nice installers and pushed people to improve usability. You need a balance between pure technology and the kinds of pressures you get from users through the market.

Don't you feel you missed the chance of a lifetime by not creating a proprietary Linux? No. I'm actually perfectly well off. I live in a good-size house, with a nice yard, with deer occasionally showing up and eating the roses. My wife likes the roses more; I like the deer more, so we don't really mind. I've got three kids, and I know I can pay for their education. What more do I need?

Being a good programmer actually pays pretty well; being acknowledged as world-class pays even better. I simply didn't need to start a commercial company. And it's just about the least interesting thing I can imagine. So instead, I have a very good life, doing something that I think is really interesting and that I think actually matters for people, not just me. And that makes me feel good.

What's more important, Linux's huge user base or its large developer base? I don't think of them as separate entities. I think that any program is only as good as it is useful, so in that sense, the user base is the most important part, because a program without users is kind of missing the whole point. Computers and software are just tools. It doesn't matter how technically good a tool is, until you actually have somebody who uses it.

But at the same time, a certain type of user is also the kind of person who gets things done and likes programming. And open source enables that kind of special user to do things he otherwise couldn't do.

The private sector is not adopting Linux and free software as fast as was first hoped. Why do you think lots of companies still have concerns about free software? I actually think adoption is going at a fairly high rate, but what people sometimes miss is that there's just a huge inertia in switching operating systems, so Microsoft Windows has a big advantage in just the historical installed base. And on bigger servers, people are still running older Unix installations.

So these things don't take a year or two. They take a decade or two. We've come a long way. Is there a long way to go? Sure. There are technical issues, support infrastructure and just people's perceptions that just take a long time to sort out.

Microsoft has recently claimed that free software and some e-mail programs violate 235 of its patents. But Microsoft also said it won't sue for now. Is this the start of a new legal nightmare? I personally think it's mainly another shot in the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] war. Microsoft has a really hard time competing on technical merit, and they traditionally have instead tried to compete on price, but that obviously doesn't work either, not against open source. So they'll continue to bundle packages and live off the inertia of the marketplace, but they want to feed that inertia with FUD.

Do you think you and the open-source software community are prepared for this battle? I don't actually see it as a battle. I do my thing because I think it's interesting and worth doing, not because of any anti-Microsoft issues. I've never had a strong antipathy against them. Microsoft simply isn't interesting to me. And the whole open-source thing is not an anti-Microsoft movement, either. Open source is a model for how to do things, and I happen to believe that it's just a much better way to do things.

Microsoft and Novell last year announced a partnership for the interoperability of Windows and SUSE Linux. Some analysts are saying this kind of agreement is positive for consumers and can help popularize Linux. Do you agree? I don't know. I don't actually think the Novell-Microsoft agreement matters all that much in the end, but I think it would be healthier for everybody if there wasn't the kind of rabid hatred on both sides. I'd rather just worry about the technology. The market will take care of itself.

Moon is a reporter for Computerworld Brazil.

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