Just for fun
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 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 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 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 other systems?

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 uses Linux?

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.



© 2010. Karin Palmquist (karin@karinpalmquist.com). All rights reserved.