Don’t look to Linus Torvalds for leadership

linus_torvalds.jpgLinus Torvalds seems to be trying very hard to make the latest Linux kernel update as boring as possible.

“Not a whole lot of changes since -rc9, although there’s a few updates to mips, sparc64 and blackfin in there,” he wrote on the blog “Ignoring those arch updates, there’s basically a number of mostly one-liners (mostly in drivers, but there’s some networking fixes and some (sic) VFS/VM fixes there too).”

Reading this release announcement, if we can even call it that, you’d never imagine that Torvalds was leading the evolution of software which is a) becoming more central to enterprise IT departments every day and b) soon to face some the biggest attacks in its existence. True, maybe only people with specific issues will be moving to Linux 2.6.23, but surely these kernel updates represent a great opportunity to get the attention of the open source community (a community which now, if you run a data centre, includes almost everyone). So far, however, it’s an opportunity that Torvalds is content to waste.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the contentious issues around the third version of the General Public Licence, which introduces a number of clauses around software modifications. Torvalds has been wishy-washy on whether he will ever support GPL 3. If he does, the licence will see much broader support. If he doesn’t, it will sink. Maybe he’s waiting to make more substantial kernel changes before moving Linux over, but you could also argue that doing so with a point release might cause minimal disruption. But in the grand scheme of things, licensing might be the minor issue.

The big question on which Torvalds is conspicuously silent is how the Linux community should respond to the Microsoft threat. Last week, for example, Steve Ballmer confirmed many users’ fears by saying the company wants compensation from anyone who isn’t using Novell’s Suse or a distribution provided by one of its other partners. That’s a lot more direct than couching its alliance with Novell as an exercise in interoperability. It means that if you don’t use Linux in a way that Microsoft approves, you face potential litigation. Someone needs to provide a response to that. Who better than the operating system’s creator?

Instead of acting like a corporate CEO, however, Torvalds takes a decidedly Godlike approach to leadership. Having developed Linux, he allows the community to deal with the politics. In fact, a failure by the various Linux distributions to act cohesively and solve these intellectual property disputes would effectively prove that the community isn’t a viable model. That’s hard to accept when you work in a corporate enterprise with a traditional hierarchy of authority. Maybe avoiding confrontational problems and focusing on the technical side makes more sense for an innovator who probably doesn’t have the management background or the time available to commit to anything more political. Torvalds will do what he can to make Linux better, but for the rest, we have to help ourselves.

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