Torvalds on Linux, MS, software's future

"I think I would have missed the opportunity of my lifetime if I had not made Linux widely available"

Which are the benefits of Linux for the users, apart from the fact that it's free?

The biggest advantage has very little to do with the money, and everything to do with the flexibility of the product. And that flexibility has come from the fact that thousands of other users have used it, and have been able to voice their concerns and try to help make it better.

It doesn't matter if 99.99 percent of all Linux users will never make a single change. If there are a few million users, even the 0.01 percent that end up being developers matters a lot and, quite frankly, even the ones that aren't developers end up helping by reporting problems and giving feedback. And some of them pay for it and thus support companies that then have the incentive to hire the people who want to develop, and it's all a good feedback cycle.

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, I really don't think that there is a difference between users and developers. We're all "users", and then in the end, 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.

Are those special users that actually do things more important? Yes, in a sense. But in order to get to that point, you really have to have the user interest in the first place, so a big and varied user base is important, in order to get a reasonable and varied developer base.

And I would like to stress that varied part. A lot of projects try to specialize in one area so much that they get only one particular kind of user, and because they get one particular kind of user, they then get just a particular kind of developer, too. I always thought that was a bad idea: trying to aim for a specific "niche" just means that your user-base is so one-sided that you also end up making very one-sided design decisions, and then the user base will be even more one-sided, and it's a bad feedback cycle.

The private sector is not adopting Linux and free software as fast as it was first imagined. Why do you think lots of enterprises 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 MS 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. I have the advantage of having seen Linux develop (and being slowly adopted) over the last 16 years, while most others users have really only seen it in the last few years -- and trust me, we've come a long way in those 16 years. 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. MS 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.

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Peter Moon

Computerworld
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