Torvalds: Linux empowers people

Linus Torvalds wants to distance himself from the rhetoric surrounding his much-loved and somewhat feared open-source operating system, Linux.

“A lot of people think that open source is the way to do software, and I kind of agree with that. But, at the same time, I actually think that the ideology is something that may have hurt Linux,” Torvalds said during a keynote address at the Linux Canada conference held in Toronto last month.

“There’s a lot of controversy. And that’s one of the reasons why the whole name was changed from free software to open source. We’re trying to get away from some of this ideology – which is important, but only part of the picture.”

Licences to Torvalds’ Unix-based OS, which he created when he was a student, are freely available to anyone who’s interested. But the idea of giving away software for free and letting everyone in on the code in which it’s written is unsettling to some.

Others, however, have taken up open source as a battle cry. And this has Torvalds concerned about companies such as Napster Inc., which makes music-sharing software.

“I think that it is absolutely wrong to use open source as an excuse (to subvert copyright). That connection, I just cannot understand. At the same time, I think that these kinds of global sharing things, they are just a natural outgrowth of the Internet. And the fact that they can be used to subvert copyright, that’s a bad thing. But the fact that they exist is, in fact, very useful. I think there’s some middle ground where you can say, okay, let’s not infringe copyright, but let’s be able to share information,” Torvalds said.

In keeping true to the spirit of openness, the 30-year-old Torvalds only spoke for twenty minutes before opening the floor to questions from the audience.

“It’s been a crazy year,” he said.

A year ago, the Finnish-born Torvalds, who moved to Silicon Valley to work for Transmeta Corp., had trouble getting charge cards in the U.S. because he didn’t have a borrowing history in the country.

“They wouldn’t give me a credit card. These days, I have a credit card with a penguin on it,” Torvalds said, as he stood on stage wearing a hockey shirt, jeans, white socks and sandals.

Torvalds attributed the success of Linux to its ability to empower people.

“I think what makes Linux exciting is that you finally can do what you want to do,” Torvalds said.

“People can go in, they can change the code if they want to. You should have the power to control your own life. And I think that is really what is driving Linux, both on an individual level but also in the commercial space. You find a lot of companies who need to be able to control their own destinies.”

A new kernel, which Torvalds had originally hoped would be available earlier this year, is now scheduled to be released sometime this summer.

“Everybody says that opening up the environment makes for faster development. And everybody takes Linux as an example of going from zero to a hundred miles an hour in 10 years as being something really fast. And at the same time, it’s obviously not true. Open source, in many ways, is slower, it’s more staid, it’s more random, it’s not as easily directed as a commercial in-house product often is,” Torvalds said.

“It kind of goes both ways. If you have a company with a vision and that vision is exactly on target, the close source code may be the right way to go, because you know where you are, you know where you want to end up. You’re not going to walk all over the place, you’re going to get there (on) the fastest path. And that’s wonderful.”

But open source has its advantages, Torvalds argued. It allows people to explore different possibilities and can be adapted to fit different needs.

With Version 2.4 of the kernel, Torvalds promised to address some of the concerns raised by the infamous benchmark by Mindcraft, which found that Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT actually outperformed Linux in certain areas.

“That’s a big no-no,” he said. As a result, the open source community is gearing up Linux to meet the needs of high-end multiprocessing and scalability on large Web servers. But he promised that smaller computers, such as laptops, will also be supported.

“We’re running lots of benchmarks to make sure that when you throw money at hardware, Linux will take advantage of it,” he said.