Linus Torvalds

Engineer , and

Creator of the Linux Computer Operating System


He could have been as rich as Bill Gates, with his revolutionary computer operating system. But Linus Torvalds believes there's more to life than money says David Thomas


BOTH Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds are sandy- haired, bespectacled, geeky individuals whose appalling dress-sense has been only marginally mitigated by marriage. Both were instrumental in the creation of operating systems - the software packages that turn a computer from an inanimate box into a functioning machine. Both have become global leaders of the technological revolution. But that's where the similarities end. For Gates was an American student of business and law, from a wealthy background, who had a brilliant entrepreneurial idea.


One man and his penguin: Linus Torvalds and the Linux penguin

He perceived, before anyone else, that computer software (the programs) would become far more valuable than hardware (the boxes). He and his partners at Microsoft created a system called MS-DOS, which evolved into Windows, and made the majority of the world's personal computers dependent on it. By keeping the inner 'source-codes' that governed their system secret, they prevented anyone else copying what they had done. They used their market dominance to crush competitors and extract vast revenues from customers who had no option but to pay for their products. Gates became mind-bendingly rich.

He also became admired, feared and, in certain quarters, hated for his crushing domination of the computer world. Torvalds, on the other hand, was a Finnish student from a middle-class but impecunious family, who created a revolution in computer operating systems almost by accident, when trying to make his own PC talk to the computer at his university. In his new book, Just For Fun, the Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, he describes how - putting everything he did directly into the public domain via the internet - he sat in his tiny Helsinki bedroom developing an operating-system called Linux, which just about any computer-user, on any machine, could use if they wanted to.

By making the source-codes for Linux public - known in computing as open source - Torvalds enabled other computer geeks to suggest improvements to the system. He also allowed companies to develop and sell Linux-based products, for free. Linux slowly got better and better and appeared in more and more applications. Unless you are a computer nerd, you probably do not have Linux on your desktop. But if your internet ISP has IBM servers, chances are that they will be using Linux.

The computer giant has embraced Linux wholeheartedly (as, incidentally, have Hewlett-Packard and Dell), spending millions of dollars on a US advertising campaign to celebrate the fact, and now believes that its decision to use Linux was responsible for a massive leap in server sales last year. The computer-cartoon film Shrek, which is proving a massive hit in America, was made with Linux-using computers - George Lucas uses it, too. The Chinese postal service uses Linux, as does Japan's biggest grocery chain.

Academics in South America believe that because Linux can be downloaded for free, it holds the key to getting the poor online. Even America's ultra-secretive National Security Administration has got in on the act, with a million-dollar project aimed at creating a more secure version of Linux, called SELinux. Now, in the spirit of open source, the NSA is making its SELinux code public. 'This is very unusual,' commented a nervous spokes-spook. 'It's a paradigm shift for the NSA.' Yes, but it's standard practice for Linux. Thousands, even millions of people have participated in the growth of Linux from its beginnings as a personal project in 1991, through its public launch in March 1994, to where it is today. As Torvalds himself puts it, 'What started out in my messy bedroom has grown to be the largest collaborative project in the history of the world.'

But Torvalds is not a billionaire, nor anywhere remotely near it. At 31, he is a junior software engineer at a Californian company called Transmeta. He, his wife Tove and their daughters, Patricia and Daniela, live in a large house in an exclusive development south of San Francisco. The house has a games-room, a hot-tub and five bathrooms. Linus drives a BMW Z3 sportscar. So Torvalds is not poor. But he is so much less rich than he could be, that his apparent indifference to great wealth has become a touchstone that separates the world of computing and telecommunications into two utterly distinct camps.

To business-people, Torvalds is a patsy who doesn't know his own value. But to computer geeks and ideologues, Torvalds has become a near-mythical figure. If Microsoft is the Evil Empire and Bill Gates its Darth Vader, then he is a real-life Obi-Wan Kenobi, part guru, part guerrilla fighter. Both Gates and Torvalds are respected, but in very different ways. If Gates is hated, Torvalds is loved. While Gates is paid, Torvalds is thanked. And so the question that arises is simple: is Torvalds a genius, or a schmuck? Has he missed out on one of the world's great goldmines, or found something more valuable than money? And one more question while we're at it: what kind of a man starts a revolution for free these days, anyway?

Torvalds himself is keen to play down the saintlier aspects of his public persona. 'People take me too seriously,' he says. 'I often get the feeling that they expect me to be some latter-day monk, living a frugal life in solitude. But money isn't such a bad thing to have as a reward for hard work.' He's well aware, though, that it is precisely his lack of mega-millions that is the root of his favourable image.

'A big part of my appeal was that I'm not Bill Gates. Journalists seemed to love the fact that, while Gates lived in a high-tech lakeside mansion, I was tripping over my daughters' playthings in a three-bedroom ranch house with bad plumbing.' Torvalds has shied away from any overt, posturing opposition to Microsoft, but his book is full of sly digs at the software Goliath: 'I didn't have to stand on a soapbox and say horrible things about Microsoft... Events just play themselves out and they played themselves out in favour of Linux... Microsoft's strategy is ultimately doomed to fail... The weeds will overrun those tidy green buildings in Redmond [Microsoft HQ] someday... Open source developers strive to earn the esteem of their peers. Bill Gates doesn't understand this... ' and so on.

For its part, Microsoft seems uncertain how to respond. In January, the company's chief executive, Steve Ballmer gave a presentation to Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the giant American financial institution, at which he described Linux as 'threat number one' to Microsoft. 'You have to rate competitors that threaten your core higher than competitors you're trying to take from,' he said. 'So that puts the Linux phenomenon at the top of the list.'

Four weeks later, however, another Microsoft executive, Doug Miller, was claiming that Linux was doomed, and that many Linux-based businesses would be in trouble before the year was out. 'There really isn't much value in [being] free,' he said. 'Free does not sustain a business. Development costs money, quality costs money, support costs money. We have yet to see a Linux business model that has any chance of long-term success.' The combination of bluster and fear suggests that Goliath is getting nervous. But who precisely is the David throwing stones?

Linus Torvalds comes from the Swedish-speaking community that forms five per cent of the Finnish population. Both his parents are journalists and both are radical. They divorced when Torvalds was a small boy and he and his sister Sara spent their childhood shuttling - either singly or together - between their parents' various domestic arrangements. Torvalds's father, Nicke, was a committed Communist who studied in Moscow and was politically active in Finland.

As a child, Linus was often teased about his father's politics: some parents even refused to let him play with their children. Where his father was an athlete and womaniser, Linus was physically awkward and shy with girls. He was, and still is, acutely embarrassed by his nose, which he thinks is elephantine. That his childhood was difficult is evident from his inability, or unwillingness, to remember it in any detail. In his book, his co-writer David Diamond tries to get Torvalds to talk about his youth. 'I don't remember much of my childhood,' says Torvalds. 'I remember rules and how things are organised, but I can never remember details of things, including my childhood. I don't remember how things happened, or what I was thinking when I was small. I can't even remember how old I was when my parents split up.

Maybe six. Maybe 10.' But amid the emotional fracture and domestic disorder of his upbringing, there was one environment that he could control, that responded immediately to his commands and made no demands upon his emotions: his computer. 'I must have been about 11 when I first saw a computer,' he says, going on to describe the experience with the total recall that he acquires when the subject-matter is technical. 'In 1981, my maternal grandfather, who was professor of statistics at Helsinki University, bought a new Commodore VIC-20. It was one of the first ready-made computers meant for the home.

You just plugged it into the TV, and there it sat, with a big all-caps "READY" at the top of the screen and a big blinking cursor just waiting for you to do something. I don't know how many other pre-teen boys sat in their grandfather's room, being taught how to simplify arithmetical expressions and type them correctly into a computer, but I remember doing that.' His grandfather died when Torvalds was 15: 'After that, the machine came to live with me. There wasn't any discussion about it. The computer found a home on a tiny desk against the window, two feet from my bed.' Torvalds's adolescence was spent in front of a screen, sitting in a room that was permanently darkened by thick drapes across the window.

'Instead of reading Playboy, like other boys, I would fake sleeping, wait for Mum to go away, jump up and sit in front of a computer. Some of the time I wouldn't even come out for food. My mother started telling her journalist friends that I was such a low-maintenance child all she had to do to keep me happy was store me in a dark closet with a computer and occasionally throw in some dry pasta.'

On camping holidays Linus would spend all day in his tent, nose in a maths or computer-related book, while the rest of the family hiked or swam. His mother, Mikke, recognised traits in her son she had first seen in her father, the statistics professor. 'A person whose eyes glaze over when a problem presents itself or continues to bug him, who does not hear you talking, who fails to answer any simple question, who is ready to forgo food and sleep in the process of working out a solution and who does not give up. Ever.'

But it took more than an absence of rest or food to creat Linux. Like many revolutions, it began with an inspirational text. 'Everybody has a book that changed his or her life,' Torvalds says. 'For some it is the Bible or Das Kapital. But the book that launched me to new heights was Operating Systems: Design and Implementation by Andrew S Tanenbaum. The author was a university professor from Amsterdam who had created an operating system called Minix. Torvalds wasn't happy with the Minix's terminal emulation - the program that allowed him both to connect to his university's mainframe computer from his own PC and to go online. So he started creating a terminal emulation program of his own.

Once he'd worked out how to communicate, Torvalds needed to be able to download material, file and save it. That meant creating a file management system and a disk driver. He programmed round the clock. Little by little, he found himself creating a whole new way of making his computer work. Linux was a very long way from being a fully mature Microsoft. But it was taking its first toddling steps in that direction. 'I think that the transition happened in the hypnosis of one of my marathon programming sessions,' he says. 'Day or night? I can't recall. One moment I'm in my threadbare robe hacking away on a terminal emulator with extra functions.

The next, it's accumulating so many functions that it has metamorphosed into a new operating system in the works.' Torvalds started going online, asking for help with his work, and a small community of geeks began to coalesce around his fledgling system, which he was privately beginning to call Linux. And here, there's a point that needs to be made about the kind of work he was doing: it's profoundly creative.

And for a certain type of person - almost always male, socially dysfunctional, far more comfortable with abstract thought that human emotion - this form of creation is as satisfying a form of self-expression as writing a novel or composing a symphony. As Torvalds explains, 'To someone who does programming, it's the most interesting thing in the world. It's a game that's much more involved than chess, a game where you can make up your own rules and where the end result is whatever you can make of it. The operating system is the basis for everything else that will happen in the machine. So you're creating the world in which all the programs running the computer live. You get to create your own world and the only things that limit what you can do are the capabilities of the machine and your own abilities. If you're good enough, you can be God.'

Of course, the world that Torvalds created took a little longer than seven days. But by January 1992, there were hundreds of people around the world using his fledgling system, and suggesting ways to upgrade it. Torvalds started asking computer buffs logging on to the Linux newsgroup (a form of internet bulletin-board) to send him postcards from wherever they were. When they flooded in from New Zealand, Japan, the US and Europe, his mother and sister (with whom he never discussed what he was up to) began to have an inkling that their Linus might be doing something worthwhile.

And that worth was moral, as well as technical. For one of the ironies of the Torvalds story is that while his father Nicke was, in theory, the family Communist, it was Linus who actually did something genuinely communal. This was, in part, a matter of hardcore programming ideology. To serious computer nerds, open source (ie sharing openly) is a matter of faith, an acknowledgement of computing's origins in academia and a deliberate snub to the corporate suits and their obsession with patents, copyright and intellectual property.

But Torvalds also sees open sourcing as a form of quality control, since every line of code is under constant peer-review from the people who use it. In addition it makes for speedier evolution, since all problem-solving solutions are shared and no time is wasted on duplication. 'It made sense for me that the best way for Linux to develop was to keep it pure. If you don't let money into the picture, people won't get greedy.' Because everyone knew that Torvalds wasn't profiting from his creation, people felt able to share their ideas without fear of being ripped off.

Torvalds contends that this open stance is equally applicable to commercial activity, too. Companies that treat their innovations as proprietary secrets protect themselves. But they isolate themselves, too. The moment something better comes along, they are lost. That, in a nutshell, is the philosophical heart of the Gates vs Torvalds debate. In 1976, at the very dawn of Microsoft, Bill Gates stated that software development depended on strict copyright control.

If not, he argued, 'You prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?' By making Windows such an impenetrable cyber-fortress, Microsoft secured global domination. But it also aroused the ire of the US government, generated enormous resentment and galvanised corporate systems managers to try and find solutions that would leave them less dependent on one supplier. That is why so many major companies are now running their computers using Linux.

'Open source makes sense,' Torvalds argues. 'People do their best work when motivated by passion, and the open source model gives them the chance to live their passion. To have fun. And to work with the world's best programmers, not the few who happen to be employed by their company. That's got to be motivating. And when the money rolls in, people get convinced.' And the money really did roll. By the late Nineties, Linux had become the basis for a number of start-ups as businesses formed to provide specialist applications, services and technical support to the ever-growing band of major corporations that were using Linux within their computer systems.

It may, as Microsoft's Doug Miller suggested, seem impossible to make money from a free system. But that's not necessarily the case. Think of the operating system being to a computer what a car is to an engine. You could make an engine whose every working part was made entirely public, and given away for free. But that still wouldn't stop people building a whole range of cars around that engine and making money from them. That, in essence is what Linux companies do: use a free system to create a saleable product. The best-known of these companies was called Red Hat. Out of gratitude to Torvalds, who since moving to California in 1997 had almost acquired rock-star status --whenever he made public appearances at computer conventions, thousands of Linux users would queue for hours to hear his (not very good) speeches - the founders of Red Hat gave him a package of stock-options.

The company went public in August 1999, at the height of the dotcom frenzy. The launch price was $25 a share. By mid-December, it was almost $150. Torvalds was able to exercise his options after six months, enabling him to cash a parcel of shares at around $75 apiece, thereby gaining an instant seven-figure fortune (and being able to afford his new house and his BMW). 'Regardless of the image that has caught on of me as a selfless geek-for-the-masses living under a vow of poverty, I was, frankly, delirious.' He got out just in time. Now, like so many over-hyped stocks, Red Hat is down more than 95 per cent from its peak, trading at around $5.

Not that Torvalds cares. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: if you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. With every month that passes, Torvalds seems more at ease with himself. The socially inadequate geek is now a husband and father. The committed sloth and exercise-avoider now runs, surfs and plays tennis like any other Californian. 'He even knows what's going on with his friends and co-workers,' says David Diamond. 'He suddenly seems to have conjured up childhood memories, too.' The geek, in short, is becoming human.

This may, of course, make him less effective as an obsessive, round-the-clock, number-crunching programmer. But so what? Linus Torvalds never wanted to be as rich as Bill Gates, or as powerful. So he's ended up with a comfortable amount of money, a loving family, a life in a gorgeous location, a job he enjoys, the admiration of millions and the respect of all his peers. We should all be so impoverished.

 

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