Interview: creator is sanguine about Linux future

As a college student in his native Finland in 1991, Linus Torvalds, now 28, wrote the first kernel of the Linux operating system -- the freely distributed version of Unix -- as a hobby. Today, he's still at the centre of the volunteers who are developing Linux.

Since its creation, the operating system has evolved into a major platform, with an estimated 5 million to 10 million users. This quarter, major software vendors such as Oracle and Informix have announced database products for Linux, and Corel has announced an office productivity suite for the platform. Netscape Communications also has released its Navigator World Wide Web browser for Linux. Computerworld West Coast Bureau Chief Galen Gruman and staff writer David Orenstein recently interviewed Torvalds -- now a Silicon Valley resident and employee of Transmeta, a chip-design company in Santa Clara, California -- to get a view of the operating system through the eyes of its creator.

On Linux's beginning:

"It wasn't meant to be a big, professional operating system. It was more meant to be [for] my own personal enjoyment. I was 21, and I had no idea what I was doing. How hard can it be? It's just an operating system. Being completely ignorant about the size of the project, I didn't have any inhibitions about doing something stupid. I could say that if I had known, I wouldn't have started, but at the same time, if I had known how fun and how successful it was to become, I would have started."

On strange Linux uses:

"One thing that I consider to be supremely important is that the more strange uses there are, the more likely it is to be a good system. It improved dramatically when I made it available to others... . If there is one goal I have, it's more of an overall diversity goal. Somebody ported Linux to the PalmPilot. He was crazy or the group was crazy ... but I was overjoyed to see the project."

On stranger Linux uses:

"There was this report about some Japanese company [that] had this prototype [of] a refrigerator that had an LCD display. It happened to run Linux. . . . It had Netscape, also. Actually, the really ridiculous [instance] is that some Linux person was actually trying to crack [Actimates Interactive] Barney [Microsoft's talking version of the dinosaur doll] to get Linux onto the thing instead."

On the commercial rush to Linux:

"Partly, it's obviously public relations [for the vendor firms]. It's been in the news a lot. Netscape changed the public knowledge about Linux quite a lot. Oracle and Informix would have ported at some point anyway, just because a lot of their clients probably are mentioning Linux."

On the market:

"Linux is the number one Unix in Germany, and in the whole world it's number two, after Solaris."

On being apart from the other Unixes:

"Linux has certainly been helped by Unix vendors just being completely not in touch with what people want. The [vendors] essentially gave up on [Unix on] the desktop. They didn't try to even make it easy to install on a desktop. They didn't try to make it pleasant after it was installed."

On the benefits of commercial Linux:

"Sometimes I get the question, ‘Aren't you upset by companies like Red Hat making money off something you wrote?' And the answer is ‘no,' because I'm so happy with what they've done for Linux.

"I think that the commercial Linux companies -- Red Hat is just one of them; S.U.S.E., Slackware, VA Research [are others] they've done a lot of good things, and we've gotten more of a balance between purely technical and the purely marketplace [developer perspectives]."

On competing operating systems:

"I actually think that within a few years, Apple will cease to exist simply because it's too hard to compete against Microsoft. Linux doesn't have the same commercial pressures.

"People are nervous about taking their software ... and putting it on a Microsoft platform, just because the platform is so strongly controlled by one company. Linux is, in that sense, maybe even a safer platform for commercial companies."

On Linux as his hobby:

"I have a job here in the area. I explicitly didn't want to work in a Linux-related capacity because I didn't want to get that commercial kind of feeling."

A demanding hobby:

"On average, I almost have to read e-mail [from developers] for two hours a day just to keep up. On top of those two hours, [there are] two or three hours to actually do something about it."

On the pro-Linux advocacy:

"A lot of it is too much. I try to not get involved."

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