by Manuel Martinez
Interview with Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds talks about the past and future of Linux and
shares his opinions on current events.
LF: After creating Linux, you took the decision in 1992 of registering it under a GPL license by the FSF that allows for a quite generous distribution of the sources of the kernel.
Linus: I changed the Linux copyright license to be the GPL some time in the first half of 1992 (March or April, I think). Before that it had been a very strict license that essentially forbid any commercial distribution at all - mostly because I had hated the lack of a cheaply and easily available UNIX when I had looked for one a year before..
LF: From time to time you have strongly defended the GPL license over other licenses, BSD comes to mind.
Linus: I'd like to point out that I don't think that there is anything fundamentally superior in the GPL as compared to the BSD license, for example. But the GPL is what _I_ want to program with, because unlike the BSD license it guarantees that anybody who works on the project in the future will also contribute their changes back to the community.
And when I do programming in my free time and for my own enjoyment, I really want to have that kind of protection: knowing that when I improve a program those improvements will continue to be available to me and others in future versions of the program.
Other people have other goals, and sometimes the BSD style licenses are better for those goals. I personally tend to prefer the GPL, but that really doesn't mean that the GPL is any way inherently superior - it depends on what you want the license to do..
LF: Recently, some companies of statue like Netscape Communications Corporation, who plans to integrate its navigator with Linux, stunned the world announcing their intention to release the source code to the public. What analysis can you make of the GPL license, the "Free Software Movement" and Netscapes's recent move?
Linus: I don't think that Netscape wants to "integrate" the navigator with Linux, I think that what happened is that the Netscape people have long been aware of how well the Linux development model works, and that the assault on the browser market by MicroSoft made them decide it was time to use non-traditional means to change the marketplace a bit.
I'm personally very pleased that Netscape is doing this: if for no other reason than the fact that it shows that even well-known commercial companies are starting to notice how useful and successful the free software paradigm really is. Netscape doing it may show the way for other companies to do it later..
LF: Related to this, How do you see Linux and the free Software community in 2, 5 or 10 years from Now? Do you think the free Software Community will keep the rate of evolution of the Commercial Software, integrating whatever new technologies in Linux and BSD?
Linus: I never try to make any far-reaching predictions, so much can happen that it simply only makes you look stupid a few years later. I obviously think that freely available software can not only keep up with the evolution of commercial software, but often exceed what you can do commercially. Netscape obviously seems to agree with me.
LF: Despite Linux short life, this operating system has gained hundreds of thousands of adepts all over the world in a record time. Many experts chose it for their companies without prejudice, from an objective point of view, not because they are fanatics of Linux but knowledgeable of its virtues. There are others more cautious who do not publicly admit using Linux (perhaps afraid of bringing a backslash to their company for using free software). Finally there are those who are true champions of Linux, identifying themselves perhaps with a David trying to defeat a Goliath personified by Microsoft. This last company represent the market system in essence, their main objective, beyond the product itself, is to sell and make money in huge amounts. Do you share or understand this attitude?
Linus: I can certainly understand the "David vs Goliath" setup, but no, I don't personally share it all that much. I can't say that I like MicroSoft: I think they make rather bad operating systems - Windows NT is just more of the same - but while I dislike their operating systems and abhor their tactics in the marketplace I at the same time don't really care all that much about them.
I'm simply too content doing what I _want_ to do to really have a very negative attitude towards MicroSoft. They make bad products - so what? I don't need to care, because I happily don't have to use them, and writing my own alternative has been a very gratifying experience in many ways. Not only have I learnt a lot doing it, but I've met thousands of people that I really like while developing Linux - some of them in person, most of them through the internet.
LF : Please allow me to make an easy and superficial comparison. You, like Bill Gates have developed an operating system of great success while still being a student. Well actually Gates did not really developed an OS himself, but allow me the comparison ;). You have gained tremendous popularity and won several prices like "The UniForum Award" or the recent "Nokia Foundation" in 1997 which mentions your "inspiring example for young researchers". Now Mr. Gates, years past and far away from that youngster who together with Paul Allen founded Microsoft, is disgustingly rich and lives in a mansion near Lake Washington, Seattle, which cost him around 63 million US$. Can you see yourself, your wife Toe and your daughter Patricia in a house like that?
Linus: I have no idea where I'd get that kind of money, but I can certainly imagine living in a house like that. I'd probably enjoy it immensely ;)
But I don't really think that the comparison is all that valid. Bill Gates really seems to be much more of a business man than a technologist, while I prefer to think of Linux in technical terms rather than as a means to money. As such, I'm not very likely to make the same kind of money that Bill made..
LF: The 25th of August 1991, you launched the following message to the USENET: "Hello everybody out there using minix. I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones." Since the birth of Linux in 1991 (Destiny wished you didn't called it Benedictux, thankfully), the evolution of this operating system has gone through various stages since that primitive 0.01 of September 1991. By the 5th of October you already had 0.02 an shortly after 0.03, finally arriving to a 0.10, 0.11 and a very decent 0.12. From here it jumped to the 0.95 and 0.96, already foreseeing the first "non-beta" version. After the first version, in June 9th 1996 you announced version 2.0 which had little to do with its predecessors: multi-architecture support, symmetrical multi-processor support, read-write shared memory mappings of file support, just to mention a few of its innovations. Do you have any idea when we will see version 3.0 and what can kind of innovations will merit a jump to a new version?
Linus: Right now it looks like the next "jump" is going to be real-time and cluster features. Linux is actually already used for both of these things, but being used for something and being designed to do it are two different things.
But I really don't want to limit Linux to any special "five year plan": the clustering and real-time stuff is just something that people are already working on, and that is fairly well understood and has traditional uses.
I think the really _interesting_ new things are going to be things that are only beginning to show up today, but that will be commonplace in a year or two. High-bandwidth networking, live video etc. I don't know how that will change how we use computers, but it will certainly have a rather fundamental impact on operating systems.
LF: In August of last year, 1997, in Monterey California, a long standing dispute over the ownership of the Linux operating system trademark was resolved and you were assigned the ownership for the registered mark. Despite this, the GPL license allows other companies to do business selling Linux without you taking direct part (at least in just proportion) in the share of profits that must result, instead you devote actively and personally in the development of new versions and patch updates....
Linus: Yes. It should be noted that a trademark on the name "Linux" and the copyright on the code that consitutes Linux really are very separate. Right now I own both the trademark and a large portion of the copyrights, but there is nothing to say that it has to be so. In fact, I tried to get the trademark transferred to the Linux International not-for-profit organization, but it made more legal sense to transfer it to me personally, and also there were more people who apparently trusted me personally rather than a organization.
LF: ...When you are asked if this bothers you, you not only respond negatively but express your satisfaction and happiness that companies like Red Hat are introducing Linux in commercial ventures, thus contributing to develop a more polished product. What does your ego feels when it becomes known for example that Linux is selected (over Windows/NT and DEC UNIX) as the ideal OS by Digital Domain, the company that created the high-tech visual effects for the movie Titanic, or when Debian Systems develops the software for the Ham Radio satellite's communication systems?
Linus: Obviously one of the reasons that I really don't mind that people are selling Linux commercially is exactly because it _does_ make me feel good that people use the product.
So while I may not get any money from Linux, I get a huge personal satisfaction from having written something that people really enjoy using, and that people find to be the best alternative for their needs.
And at the same time, the GPL forces all future contributions to Linux to be available to everybody, which means that when a commercial company like RedHat makes a more polished Linux release, I really _do_ get something out of it. So there is quite a lot of compensation, even when that compensation isn't in the form of money.
LF: How do you feel about the GUI war going on for the Linux environment? What do you think about alternative GUIs such as the Berlin project? Do you see any problems with X?
Linus: I'm in the strange position of having concentrated very actively on the base operating system, and I really haven't even followed the projects around Linux very much. I let the user-level chips fall as they may, in the secure knowledge that whatever strange things some user level program may do, the kernel will be able to handle it.
When it comes to a GUI, one of the most important parts is that it is widely accepted, and that it is technically sound. The X Window system meets both of those requirements as far as I'm concerned, and while it obviously has a few problems they are by no means debilitating.
I think the most interesting work is going into making X look and feel nicer, rather than replacing it with something else. There are a few really nice desktop systems: fvwm95, KDE etc, and I think X is stronger for them. I don't think we have much of a problem with the GUI, but I'll wait and see what people will come up with.
LF: At this point in time, merely 6 years since the birth of Linux things are moving very rapidly. RedHat was named by Infoworld the operating system of the year; Linux is the fastest growing non-Microsoft Operating System in the world according to the IDC; and it is estimated that in 1997 somewhere between 2 million to 6 million copies of Linux were installed worldwide. Amist this cyclone of events you do not appear to remain passive watching Linux grow. Instead you seem to break physical space/time laws, showing up in multiple conferences (like your schedule appearence in North Carolina this May), your work at Transmeta (incidentally can you unveil anything to us?), the continuing development of the Linux Kernel (keeping up with email, newsgroups), taking care of the attention that from time to time the media pays you and your private life. Looking back in the past, Do you feel Linux has satisfied your initial expectations?
Linus: Linux has more than satisfied any small initial expectations I had. It's simply incredible how successful Linux has been, and how good a time I've had developing it and leading the project. It _does_ take a lot of my time, but it's time I really enjoy spending, and Linux has continued to be challenging both technically and from a managing standpoint.
I don't go to conferences quite as much as I used to: having a child and movin away from the university leaves me with less time than I had a few years ago, but I've tried to balance things out - not just spending time with Linux all the time, but having a real job and a real life at the same time. It has worked reasonably well, and while I'm fairly busy I can honestly say that I'm not at least bored ;)
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