Unknown to the masses
and hailed as a hero by a devoted following, Linus Torvalds, creator
of the Linux operating system, will never be the household name his
Microsoft counterpart is—in part be due to the way he chose to
distribute his system. Instead of profiting from his creation, he
offered it up for free on the Internet, pioneering the concept of
open source code. What kind of man passes on a fortune and makes his
code available to all for free?
Torvalds wrote the kernel of Linux while still a student at the
University of Helsinki in 1991. Frustrated that he couldn’t connect
to the university computer from his home computer—and without the
university computer he couldn’t connect to the budding Internet—he
wrote the code, posted it online and called on the world’s most
talented programmers to improve his system. They accepted the
challenge. Through the collaboration of brilliant minds, Linux
evolved into the thriving operating system it is today. The system
now has a user base comparable to Mac OS or Windows NT.
An operating system controls the computer, but without a source code
it is virtually impossible to figure out. How Windows works is a
proprietary Microsoft secret. Because the original quantities and
instructions that make up Linux are public, programmers can read
what the system is doing, see how it does it, and then try to figure
out how to make it better. And they do. In fact, Torvalds himself
wrote only two percent of the current version.
Though not the first to do so, Torvalds became a pioneer for open
source code, the practice of giving away the blueprints for a
software program for free. He released version 0.02 of Linux in
1991, and worked on it until 1994 when version 1.0 of the Linux
Kernel was released. The current full-featured version is 2.4,
released a year ago.
Torvalds has vowed never to profit from the system. He now works for
Transmeta Corporation in Santa Clara, CA and recently published his
autobiography, “Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental
Revolutionary.” He remains connected to the project and has the
final say in official kernel upgrades.
The Washington Times: At 21, when the rest of us had just
mastered the art of making fake IDs, you were writing a world-class
computer operating system. Were you doing this just to point out the
discrepancy in intellectual capacity between yourself and us
Linus Torvalds: Oh, when I was 21, I had already been working with
computers for half my life, and so it was more an issue of “how hard
can it be?” And it wasn’t exactly world-class back then. And it
turned out to be harder than I had naively thought—I’m obviously
still working on it ten years later, and expect to be working on it
for the foreseeable future. The biggest advantage of being 21 when I
started was, in fact, exactly the naiveté you lose later. These days
I’d not be crazy enough to think that I could do it, and I wouldn’t
start such a project. Linux got started just because I literally
didn’t realize how big a project it would end up to be.
WT: Linux might not bring down the software industry as we know
it, but it is sure to have an effect on the business. Netscape, for
example, released the source code for its Web browser, showing that
commercial software companies are not unaffected by the Linux model.
What do you think the spread of free software will mean for the
LT: My favorite analogy is science—and how the openness of
scientific thought and the importance of documenting what you did
and allowing others to reproduce your experiments and improve on
them, changed technology in a very fundamental manner. Look at
technology in the middle ages, and look at what the scientific
thought model did to the “proprietary” models of alchemy and
shamanism. The fact is, proprietary is a very, very ugly model that
depends on others not being able to reproduce your successes.
Is it easier and faster to sell snake oil and hocus-pocus than to
build up a generic knowledge of how things really work? Yes. But in
the end, and it can take quite a while. Open software is the only
long-term sustainable way of doing software development. Note that
this does not mean that commercial software would go away, the same
way science didn’t make commercial technology go away. Quite the
reverse. Every single technology company depends on that open
science to make its products.
WT: You grew up in a country with an even distribution of wealth
and a strong emphasis on equality. Do you think your background
influenced the way you chose to distribute Linux?
LT: Of course it did, it would be silly to think it didn’t—here in
the United States you very easily get into the mindset that you have
to commercialize everything. Even at universities. There’s not as
much pressure to do that in most of Europe, especially in the
well-to-do northern parts. Just the fact that I could go to a top
university, and the education was basically free, meant that I
didn’t have to worry about money, and it was just a lot easier to
concentrate on the fun and interesting stuff.
WT: Only a miniscule part—a couple of percent of the code—of the
most recent Linux version was written by you. Did you ever find it
hard to part with your brainchild, or was the idea of the common
good always more important for you?
LT: It was never about “the common good,” and it was always about
“this is fun.” And a large part of the fun was getting other
people’s comments on the code and then working together on it. Linux
isn’t open because I’m some high-tech Mother Teresa-wannabe. Linux
is open because I never had the interest in making it commercial,
and it was a lot more interesting and rewarding to bare it all,
instead of trying to make a commercial package out of it. Doing a
distribution, forming a company etc., would all have been horrible
headaches that I would never have wanted to do, nor have had any
interest at all in doing. So don’t think I’m out to improve the
world—I’m not. I’m out to do the best OS I can, and I do it the way
I do it because it would have been a horrible bore and I’d have had
ulcers if I had tried to do it the “traditional” way.
WT: Linux is the industry standard for use in servers, where the
system’s reliability is a huge advantage. Linux has also shown a
resistance to viruses. Why is Linux more resilient and reliable than
LT: There are probably several reasons, but I have two favorite
theories. You be the judge of how believable they are. The first
factor is just the fact that most people that have worked on the
core system functionality have done so because they are
fundamentally interested in it, and it’s more than just a 9-5 job to
them. Sure, most Linux kernel people actually get paid to do it
professionally these days, but that hasn’t historically been the
case, and even now all the good ones came in to Linux because they
like doing it. And guess what? That kind of person gets really
All the people I work with every day have a personal pride in what
they are doing, and really put themselves into it. Sure, that
happens occasionally in the commercial world too, but let’s be
honest—it’s something a lot of projects can only wistfully hope for.
And when you have people who see their work as more than “just
work,” the end result is just better. It’s crafted, with very little
external pressures—deadlines, managers, marketing people are all
irrelevant when it comes to doing The Right Thing. So that’s part of
it. The other part is that by not being developed in some sterile
company setting, you get “inoculated” really quickly to the real
world. Linux to a large degree hasn’t been designed as much as it
has grown and evolved, and the last thing you can have when there
are hundreds of people with no external scaffolding working on the
same project is a fragile system.
So there is a huge pressure for a robust, stable, rock solid
platform. Think of it in terms of biology. What do you think happens
to a laboratory rat when you let him out in the sewers of New York?
He may have been the healthiest rat you ever saw in a laboratory,
but quite frankly, I’ll put my money on the grubby native New York
rats every time. They grew up in the wild, and they know how to
WT: So where would you say the advantages of the system lie and
how is Linux superior to a commercial product?
LT: For most users, the major advantage is just the flexibility you
get from being able to do whatever you want. Nobody tells you what
you can put on your desktop and what you can’t. Nobody tells you
what the preferred browser is, and even if somebody did, you could
just laugh in his or her face and use whatever you want to. Others
don’t care about the flexibility, but they like the fact that the
system does know how to get around in the sewers of the Internet,
and feels at home to them without getting viruses every time
something new turns up.
WT: Did you ever meet Bill Gates, and did he tell you he secretly
LT: He hasn’t been using Windows for the last five years or so, he
just sells it. He’s a big Linux fan. Didn’t you know? All the
successful drug dealers refuse to touch the stuff they peddle… Ah,
well, seriously I’ve never met him. We’ve been at some conferences
at the same time, but there hasn’t been a meeting yet.
WT: What is your vision for the Finnish IT industry?
LT: Well, I have to admit that one of the reasons I moved to Silicon
Valley is that Finland is fairly small and has to concentrate on
certain specific areas in order to compete well—with a population of
five million plus people you simply can’t do everything.
And Finland is very good at the things we concentrate on, with
mobile phones—and the infrastructure around them—obviously being the
best example. There are others. There’s a strong IT security
background in Finland too, but communication technologies tend to
dominate, which is not to say that there aren’t lots of other
high-techs too. That’s not likely to change—Finland simply has to
concentrate on its strong areas. I just happened to pick an area of
personal interest that wasn’t cell phones, so I ended up in Silicon
WT: When I mention your name, some people get a hazy, almost
stalker-ish look in their eyes. You must get a lot of that.
Sometimes it must come in handy to have a wife who is a six-time
Finnish karate champion.
LT: Actually, people know my name much better than they know my
face, and I’m seldom recognized in the streets. Even in Silicon
Valley, full of tech geeks as it is. I can go anywhere, and I never
get bothered, so I obviously haven’t reached that rock-stardom level
yet. Just as well.