Self-described accidental revolutionary Linus Torvalds on Linux, life
and the love of code
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
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 mortals?
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 industry?
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
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 personally involved.
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 handle it.
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 Valley.
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.