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Monday, October 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Q&A: Linus Torvalds, inventor of Linux

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter

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Microsoft grass-roots rival Linux thriving in Portland
Linus Torvalds [pronounced LEE-nus] started a revolution of sorts in the computer industry when he created the Linux operating system and decided to share it with fellow programmers on the Internet.

He discussed via e-mail his move to Portland, the state of Linux and Microsoft.

Q. Why did you choose to live in Portland, and what's your impression so far of the Northwest? One person told me you moved there because it looks like Finland. Is that true?

A. Well, the Northwest is certainly more like Finland in the sense that California is not like Finland.

But, no, I don't think that was the reason. Although part of it was definitely that we thought that Portland was more "livable," being smaller and less busy than Silicon Valley. Whether that is because I grew up in Finland, I don't know.

And being from Finland, the horror tales of constant rain didn't scare me as much as they do the native Californians.

Q. Do you see Portland emerging as a hub for Linux development?

Linus Torvalds

Inventor of the Linux operating system

Age: 34

Education: University of Helsinki

Home: Portland. A native of Finland, he lived in the San Francisco area until June.

Mascot: A penguin named Tux, which has been adopted as the Linux symbol.

Work: Employed by Open Source Development Labs in Portland; previously worked for Transmeta

A. I personally think of Linux development as being pretty non-localized, and I work with all the people entirely over e-mail — even if they happen to be working in the Portland area. So I really don't think of it that way.

That said, there is clearly a fairly lively Linux community in Portland, and I'm not contesting that, either.

Q. Where do you expect Linux to see its biggest growth over the next five years?

A. I've felt strongly that the advantage of Linux is that it doesn't have a niche or any special market, but that different individuals and companies end up pushing it in the direction they want, and as such you end up with something that is pretty balanced across the board.

I continue to feel that the desktop is interesting, because it's how I personally have always used Linux, and what I myself have been interested in. It's also the technically (and marketwise) most challenging area, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And clearly there is a lot of budding interest in the area from the commercial players.

But at the same time, the embedded market space [operating system for devices] may not get as much notice, and might not be as in-your-face as the desktop, but it's clearly a growing area for Linux, too — along with servers and supercomputers and whatever new emerging markets people get into. So I'm not playing favorites.

Q. Which new technologies are you most excited about and why?

A. I like the small (and sometimes not so small) geeky toys. I get the biggest enjoyment from the random and unexpected places. Linux on cellphones or refrigerators, just because it's so not what I envisioned it. Or on supercomputers.

But at the end of the day, what I actually do and work on tends to be the same old regular desktop computers, since that's where all the basics come together, without the extremes that make the fun and odd projects so strange.

Q. How has the presence of IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and other big vendors affected the Linux community? Are there fewer volunteers now or have some volunteers gone on to other projects?

A. Quite the reverse, I believe. There's certainly been discussion about how companies end up changing the mental landscape of Linux and open source. But if anything, I believe it's balanced things out a lot, and has caused people who didn't believe in the commercial potential of open source to re-think their position, and decide that open source isn't just a hobby; it's something you can do as your job too. And that brings in people.

Now, many of the volunteers end up getting paid, and maybe they can't be called "volunteers" any more if somebody ends up being silly enough to pay them for something they'd have done for free anyway.

So if you count that way, then maybe the ranks of volunteers have indeed shrunk, but I don't think that really ends up being a problem.

Q. Has the antitrust case against Microsoft — and the new rules preventing the company from bullying PC makers — helped Linux?

A. I don't think the lawsuits have necessarily made a huge direct difference, but I do think that it has made a lot more people realize that maybe Microsoft wasn't the "American Dream" after all, but just another greedy company that might be better off with some competition. And that probably has opened a few doors.

I think Microsoft has a PR problem. Largely deservedly, I would say.

Q. What are your thoughts on Microsoft's competitive approach to Linux that emphasizes what it calls Windows' lower cost of ownership? [The company is telling customers that the total cost of running Windows, including support costs as well as the purchase price, are less.]

A. I found the [Microsoft] "Getthe facts" [marketing] campaign pretty amusing, myself. I think people can make up their own minds about the facts.

Q. What do you think about Microsoft's "shared source" program and similar programs offering some access to its code to engage developers?

A. I think they are fundamentally flawed, because there is no way their "shared source" thing can ever really engage a developer. It's like showing somebody the goods and telling them that they can play with all the cool toys, but that they can never really be part of it, and whatever they create will be owned and controlled by Microsoft.

That doesn't "engage" anybody. You're still clearly an outsider and you don't actually end up having any rights.

In real open source, you have the right to control your own destiny. When you play with it, mommy isn't going to tell you what you can and can not do, and not going to take your toy away from you when she thinks you are done. You're an adult, and you can make your own choices. That is when you get engaged.

Q. How can Linux avoid the security problems that have affected Windows?

A. Better design and actually caring about them. Having the guts to really fixing fundamental design mistakes, rather than trying to work around them.

Q. What's next for Linus Torvalds? Will Linux continue to be your occupational focus?

A. Hey, I didn't expect to do this for over a decade when I started, but I'm very happy doing it, and I feel I do something meaningful. What more can I ask for?

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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