Torvalds: Where Linux leads

Two years ago the open-source revolution was a mere glimmer in the eyes of some devoted Linux developers. Today, companies that previously snubbed the freely distributed and freely modified operating system are proudly announcing Linux ports and strategies to open up their own code.

The man behind Linux, 29-year-old Linus Torvalds, became a programmer early in life. Eight years after releasing Linux, Torvalds is still in the trenches, and he has been working at secretive Transmeta here for the past two years. Over a Mexican food lunch, Torvalds talked with IDG News Service about the open-source revolution.

IDG: What is Linux's road map for the future?

Torvalds: There's never really been a road map. In the sense that the Linux user base has been changing fairly rapidly, making a five-year plan just would not work. A year ago the main user for this was still on a kind of technical workstation, a small-scale Web server. And suddenly the enterprise-like large-scale computing came ... So we're moving on to doing better and better things and it's not really planned. It's more of a reaction to what people need.

IDG: How many Linux users are there?

Torvalds: I have no idea. Nobody really counts. There's been a number of guesses ... but the user base seems to be around 10 million-plus.

IDG: What can you tell me about the plans for Linux 2.4 and even for 3.0?

Torvalds: What happened in 2.2 is that we have a fairly stable and well-designed SMP [symmetric multiprocessing] subsystem, for example. But it hasn't been really tuned or tweaked to any degree. I think that the goal for 3.0, which is probably going to be the next version -- the next stable version in two years -- is to have SMP that really scales up to 8 or 16 CPUs and probably some clustering support.

There is no one goal. There are 10,000 different people with different ideas ... the good ones eventually percolate up to the top.

IDG: When will the 2.2 kernel be considered as stable as version 2.0.36?

Torvalds: We consider 2.2 to be stable, but it's clear it will take several months before everybody is convinced and [says] "We've been running this system for three years, so let's move up to the new series." So I'd say by the end of the summer people will have started really to move up en masse.

IDG: The release of Gnome 1.0 was heralded with great media fanfare. Now with [K Desktop Environment] and Gnome, Linux has two graphical desktop interfaces -- how will this play out?

Torvalds: We'll end up with basically one dominant interface. Gnome and KDE have a lot of features in common ... Most users don't even need to care which one they use because they look slightly different but they work the same, to a large degree ... I think that you'll see basically a melding of features from both. And whether it will be called Gnome or KDE, I don't care.

IDG: What can we expect in the future in the way of improved hardware configurations for Linux?

Torvalds: You will have lots of vendors who specialise in Linux and just do their hardware especially for Linux and know which hardware performs best and things like that. But the strongest market for Linux is standardised hardware. If something breaks you go to the nearest store and replace it with something new.

IDG: For the end user, which distribution of Linux do you recommend?

Torvalds: Corel isn't out yet, so I use S.u.S.E. at home and Red Hat at work and basically they look slightly different but they're similar enough that I never hit anything that I get irritated with. I like them both. The major factor around distribution was support and location. S.u.S.E. is strong in Europe and Red Hat is the biggest one here.

IDG: Is it a problem that all the principal kernel developers of Linux, except for you, work for Red Hat?

Torvalds: Not all of them work for Red Hat. I think that Red Hat has been very good ... They were the first with a serious amount of funding which helped them snap up people in the early days when few other Linux vendors could do that. They've also been very flexible and they've been very good at making their name well known, especially here in the U.S. A lot of Linux developers are actually working for either independent companies, like me, or other Linux distributors ... Red Hat does have some very high-profile people but it certainly isn't at the point where things are unbalanced.

IDG: Are you concerned that the focus on Red Hat will affect future adoption of Linux?

Torvalds: No. One of the complaints that commercial people had about Linux originally was that there was nobody to point the finger at. There was no one entity to take the blame or even to take the check to buy more licenses. To a large degree that is a psychological problem, and to a large degree having Red Hat be a big name is good for that part of it.

IDG: What do you think about vendors such as IBM announcing speech recognition features for Linux, and the proliferation of other traditional Wintel vendors now announcing products and support for Linux?

Torvalds: I think that's a normal reaction to people noticing that, hey, here's a kind of a new market. It's maybe not quite the size of Apple yet, but it's certainly catching up and at the same time it's a market with a lot of opportunity.

IDG: We've read that you think Microsoft will jump on the Linux bandwagon.

Torvalds: Eventually ... Microsoft is so essentially market-driven ... Maybe for political reasons they wanted to wait until Linux has 15 percent of the market. Hey, it will happen. They'll go where the money is.

IDG: What do you think about Microsoft's campaign to discredit Linux, i.e. with Mindcraft benchmarks and executives publicly criticising Linux?

Torvalds: It was kind of expected ... I'm taking it as a kind of backhanded way of acknowledging Linux. They've done the same thing against everybody else in the industry.

IDG: Has the idea of open-source development promoted by Linux backers changed the way software is developed, supported, and sold?

Torvalds: Not yet. I think that it's changed a lot of people's perceptions and I think it is changing how people think about the future ... Right now there are a lot of companies who kind of dip their feet into the notion of open source and do, for example, small projects in an open source way, and I think that's exciting, too. But there are very few companies who have fully accepted it.

IDG: Do you think the Linux phenomenon will continue?

Torvalds: There are a lot of reasons why people want to go to Linux. The technical ones are fairly well known, but there are also a lot of political reasons why. A lot of people just do not like Microsoft -- a lot of companies see Linux as a way of competing without having to go head-to-head with Microsoft

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