Open Source

Open source: The Linus Torvalds interview

In a recent interview with Linux creator Linus Torvalds, Jack Wallen, Jr. sought answers to the questions IT professionals have regarding Linux, its founder, and emerging open source trends. Discover which distribution Linus prefers and more!


It still really hasn't sunk in. I've been e-mailing Linus Torvalds. Linus Torvalds! You know, Linus Torvalds—the creator of the Linux operating system! I had questions. He had answers. I was floored!

My goal was simple—ask as many questions as I could and waste as little of his time as possible. But how wonderful it was that I was actually corresponding via e-mail to the father of the technology I champion day in and day out. The questions, I decided, would try to get to the heart of the TechRepublic readers' curiosity. I hope you will be satisfied.

Linux and the economy
Jack Wallen, Jr.: In light of the recent economic downfall, it's obvious that IT departments aren't spending like they have in the past. Because of this "spending deficit," do you think that open source, and Linux in particular, should enjoy an upswing in popularity? If not, why?
Linus Torvalds: I can certainly see some of the arguments for a Linux upswing—IT managers suddenly balking at multimillion-dollar license upgrades and things like that would not surprise me. Not being an IT manager (and not having any real urge to become one), I'm not going to really comment though.
At the same time, less money flowing around certainly doesn't make it easier for anybody who competes for the money. So I suspect the end result would be fairly neutral, with a slight upside for most Linux companies and a noticeably negative impact on some other parts of the software industry (part of which has already been seen, of course).

Linus on IBM's support
Jack Wallen, Jr.: What is your opinion on IBM's support of Linux? Historically, it seems that IBM has had a sort of "anti-Midas" touch, and everything it backs tends to die (such as OS/2 and the Apple partnership in the 80s). Do you think this is different?
Torvalds: So far, IBM seems to have been very good at what it's been doing. I'm not worried about any anti-Midas touch. The same thing that made Linux fairly successful without big companies in the first place makes Linux rather impervious to any failings.

The desktop
Jack Wallen, Jr.: I'm also curious—it seems that the push to "take over the desktop" has taken a back burner.
Torvalds: I don't think that is entirely true. I've been happily using KDE2 with the anti-aliased fonts and all the eye-candy, and I've been really impressed by the fact that the desktop is actually getting itself together very nicely. At the same time, the server market is certainly the "easy" one still, and probably ends up being most peoples' bread and butter for a while.

Jack Wallen, Jr.: In the same light: GNOME vs. KDE. Is the battle ever going to be won (or "one" depending how you see it)? Do you think it would be best if one desktop environment became the standard?
Torvalds: I don't think the battle is over. I used to be completely neutral and ran neither environment. These days, I've switched from my old fvwm setup (where "f" stood for "feeble" window manager) to KDE2 mostly because I love the anti-aliased fonts from QT and because I think that Konqueror is a better Web browser than Mozilla or Netscape (and also gets anti-aliased fonts). But I don't think anybody says that KDE has "won" yet, and in fact, GNOME appears to be getting more attention—at least in the United States. I think we'll have a winner in two or three years, and I still think the current dual development lines are going to end up being better for the end result.

.NET
Jack Wallen, Jr.: .NET—I'm sure you're tired of hearing about it. ;-) Do you think Linux, in some fashion, will be left out of this new Microsoft initiative? If not, how do you think Linux will benefit from .NET?
Torvalds: I think .NET is a complete mind game and hype. I'll worry about it when and if it actually shows up.

The kernel
Jack Wallen, Jr.: How do you feel about kernel 2.4 now? Is it where you'd hoped it would be? What are your plans for the next major kernel?
Torvalds: I'm really rather happy with 2.4—we've obviously been finding bugs, but even the halfway serious ones have been quite subtle, and there haven't been any real "brown paper bag" moments. And yes, it's held up very well to what I'd hoped for.
I'm still going to work on getting 2.4.x "done" for a few more months, but hopefully I can open 2.5.x by early summer or so. We have several different areas that are already being developed for 2.5.x, ranging from NUMA to nicer block device interfaces to better ACPI support. We aren't running out of interesting things to do. ;)

Jack Wallen, Jr.: More on the kernel: It's pretty obvious that 2.4 was a huge milestone (I've been using it for a while, and I'm impressed!) for you and the Linux community. You leaped over some serious hurdles with this kernel. As time marches on, do you think the major advancements to the kernel will become more granular and less visible? I can see the kernel releases five years from now being nearly silent because the advancements are so specific (i.e., better block device interfaces vs. USB support). Obviously it all boils down to advances for the end users vs. advances for the power users. Am I making sense?
Torvalds: The kernel has been doing what most users need it to do for a long time and in that sense, yes, new releases will, to some degree, become less important for people who are already happy with the status quo of the old ones. And that is exactly how it should be—the manic "upgrade every year" mentality in computers has historically been due to the fact that the whole computer industry was in such a flux.
So as the technology matures, people should stop caring about upgrades and, at least in theory, new kernels should be most important for the "specialty markets."
At the same time, new devices and new uses keep coming up, so we certainly haven't reached the maturity stage in the computer industry yet. And even fairly mature markets (think the auto industry) certainly seem to get people to upgrade every few years. So I don't think the "normal user" advances will go away for quite some time. They'll be less critical, for sure, and people will happily be able to run older kernels if they want to.

Embedded Linux
Jack Wallen, Jr.: Do you think the most successful future for Linux will be in the embedded systems arena? It seems that the OS is perfect for such an environment.
Torvalds: I think embedded is going to be one facet of it but not necessarily the most important one. (Embedded problems tend to be fairly specific and well defined and, as such, I think the desktop in particular is a lot more important for driving new, interesting development.) A lot of people certainly would agree with you on the strengths of Linux in the area, though.

Linux's priority for the future
Jack Wallen, Jr.: If you could say that Linux needs priority in one area (i.e., desktop, office suites, kernel, standards), what area would you pick?
Torvalds: I think the strength of Linux is the fact that it doesn't have all that strong of a focus on any particular area. People do what they feel most strongly about: Some will work on the desktop, others will work on big "sexy" server machines, and yet others will work on the small, cute embedded stuff. I think that multifocus is partly what has made Linux so good at adapting to different users' needs.

Linus' distribution of choice
Jack Wallen, Jr.: What distribution of Linux do you use? Do you have your own personal secret version? Linus Linux? ;-)
Torvalds: I try to avoid getting too political. I mainly use Red Hat and SuSE: one at work, the other at home. I'd like to use others too, but I only use two machines at a time, so I just picked the two biggest distributions.

Family matters
Jack Wallen, Jr.: Does your wife use Linux? Will you raise your children using Linux?
Torvalds: My wife does indeed use Linux, and eventually the kids will too. I'm in no hurry to introduce them to computers—I saw my first computer when I was 11 or so, and I don't have the feeling that I should teach my girls to be proficient programmers by the time they are five years old. ;-)

Linux and Hollywood
Jack Wallen, Jr.: What did you think of the movie Antitrust? I spoke with Miguel di Icaza about the Hollywood portrayal, and he felt it wasn't a really great representation of the open source community. What is your opinion?
Torvalds: I haven't seen it. I go for the shoot-them-up/mindless movies myself, and I have to endure the occasional romantic one with my wife. Antitrust didn't fall in either category.

Conclusion
Linus Torvalds is indeed a unique man. In a world where the kings of the tech sector typically sit proudly on their mighty thrones, Torvalds walks humbly amongst the groundlings.

The Linux operating system continues to thrive. It has overcome major hurdle after major hurdle. As the creator of the OS looks into the future, it's obvious he stands on solid, and confident, ground that the progress made in recent years will not only continue but also prosper and grow.

You can draw your own conclusions from the above e-mail interview. You can argue that Linus Torvalds may not take things seriously enough. Regardless of which team you play for, you can't argue that Linus Torvalds is not a genuine and honest man.

As Linux progresses, I will be there. I hope you will too.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox