By Paula Rooney CRN
3:00 PM EST Fri. Nov. 12, 2004
From the November 15, 2004 CRN

CRN: What were you like as a kid? What were your hobbies?

TORVALDS: Big teeth, bad taste in clothes, awkward, you know. Most of us were that way, I tend to notice later. I don’t really remember any hobbies outside of reading and computers.

CRN: How did you come to believe in the philosophy of open source and the value of distributed software development enabled by open source?

TORVALDS: It wasn’t so much ‘believe in the philosophy’ as just a matter of doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to share what I had done and get people’s comments on it, but I didn’t want people to take it without giving something back. The notion of ‘you can do anything you want with it, but you need to give back your improvements’ is really what it’s all about. Thinking about what that actually ends up doing to development on a more abstract level came much later.

CRN: What are your thoughts now?

TORVALDS: I’m still not very philosophical about open source. To me, it’s pretty pragmatic. [I have] a very strong belief that cooperation and open sharing of knowledge ends up resulting in better development—also that cooperation sometimes needs to be enforced with licenses because there are greedy people out there that simply don’t care about poaching other people’s work. I guess you could call the belief in sharing of knowledge a ‘philosophy,’ but I just think it’s a fact. It’s what differentiates science from alchemy or witchcraft. To me, anybody who doesn’t believe in it is just wearing some serious blinders.

CRN: Some think you could be this decade’s Bill Gates if you opted to simply set up a traditional corporation and, like Red Hat, embraced open source yet moved in a more commercial vein. Why not?

TORVALDS: I don’t think I could ever have been the Bill Gates of this decade. You need to get in at the very early beginnings of a new technical thing, and commodity operating systems are not that anymore. Perhaps more importantly, you have to have the business instincts. Me, I couldn’t care less about business.

CRN: Do you consider yourself to be chief software architect of Linux and its lead programmer? Bill Gates considers himself to be chief software architect of Windows.

TORVALDS: Yes and no. I’d describe myself as ‘chief technical lead’ or something. I don’t do as much programming as I used to and not as much as some of the more active people do, so I think I end up being more of a technical lead person. As to ‘software architect,’ it’s true [that I am], but at the same time clearly the really basic ideas are from people like [Bell Labs’] Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. I architected Linux based on old and proven ideas, and I often think of myself more as an engineer than an architect. ... I don’t think [being chief software architect of Windows] is something to be particularly proud of, and I don’t think it is necessarily true. But if [Gates] wants the job description, hell, I don’t think anybody would try to wrangle it away from him. I don’t think Gates can lay claim to [lead programmer].

CRN: I’d love to get your thoughts on concerns that Microsoft and perhaps others will use patent law to subvert open source? What’s your take on that approach vs. the other copyright/contracts approach by The SCO Group?

TORVALDS: I have a really hard time speculating, and I generally try to not go into the Linux vs. Microsoft thing anyway.

CRN: It appears that your employer, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), has established, under your guidance, a more formal approach to the Linux development process. To what extent did the SCO legal case drive this, and what was your role in making this happen?

TORVALDS: I doubt we’d have ever been quite organized enough to actually instate that formal tracking without the impetus of the SCO brouhaha. I just want to make sure that 10 years from now, when the next failing company comes around and tries to take credit for our work, we’ll be all that much more prepared.

CRN: What are the benefits of having a more formal approach sponsored by a top open-source organization?

TORVALDS: I’ve found the slightly more formal tracking to be quite useful in the sense that it actually has several times made it much easier to look up who was involved with a particular patch. It helps with bug-hunting when we know a patch has problems and we want to get the people involved into solving it.

CRN: Why did you join the OSDL?

TORVALDS: I was originally planning on just taking a year of unpaid leave from Transmeta because I felt I had to concentrate on getting [Linux] 2.6.x out the door with no distractions. OSDL turned out to be a great way to do that without losing health coverage or pay and still remaining neutral.

CRN: You own the Linux trademark. What will you do with it?

TORVALDS:: My personal goal in life is to have as little to do with paperwork as possible. So the basic plan is to have somebody else take care of it, with me not actually having to worry about any day-to-day or even month-to-month issues. I have a few rules of what is OK [for use], and then somebody else does it all.

CRN: What’s your favorite handheld gadget?

TORVALDS: I don’t do handhelds. If it doesn’t fit in my pocket, it might as well be a real computer. And none of the handhelds are.

 Published for the Week Of November 15, 2004