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Softpanorama Linus Torvalds' Interviews Collection (1999)
(preserving Linus Torvalds interviews for humanity ;-)

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TechNetCast - Linux BOF at USENIX 1999

Linus Torvalds At USENIX, Part 1 (25:00) PLAY
Linus Torvalds At USENIX, Part 2 (25:00) PLAY
Linus Torvalds At USENIX, Part 3 (25:00) PLAY
more programs from USENIX 1999 () PLAY

Linus Torvalds Whenever I talk, I either talk about completely strange, random things -and that happens when I go to places like Berkeley or something where I need to talk about like philosophy to fit into the group- or I talk about the Linux kernel. And when it comes to USENIX, I always talk about Linux kernel. So [today] I'll start off with just a few short words on the state of the kernel and then [cover some of] what we are working on right now and then [throw in] a few short sentences about what the bigger plan [is]. Then I'll just finish off with asking you all to come to grips with your gripes with Linux or with life in general and we'll just take it from there. If you have no gripes at all with Linux, I'll be really happy and this is really going to be a short talk. So that's the plan.

So what is the current state of Linux? How many of you are actually Linux users? [Most hands in audience raise] Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry [laughter]. How many of you are not Linux users and just came to watch the zoo? Okay, a few of you┘ We'll beat you up afterwards. The 2.2 kernel has been out for a few months. It's still in the stabilization phase meaning that there's always a period when patches keep coming out and we seem to have passed that [phase] to some degree. We've almost reached the slowdown phase where nobody is really interested in it anymore. There aren't any major showstopper problems that warrant a new patch and a month has passed probably since the last one. I'm readying a new patch set just to fix a few ugly things. I essentially hope that 2.2 will then really be almost dead in the same sense that 2.0 has been dead for the last year. There will be people who follow on bug track and fix the worst ones. There will be people who backport drivers, for example, from the development tree into the stable tree just because drivers are always needed. But 2.2 certainly seems not get much active development anymore and we opened up the 2.3 tree about a month ago and this is where all the development is going. But before I go into that I'll just mention a few basic facts about 2.2.

There had been a long time since 2.0. More than two-and-half years. So obviously we just needed a stable kernel but also we wanted to [work on] infrastructureFor example, 2.2 has the infrastructure [required] for doing SMP really well. Notice that I say that it has "the infrastructure to do SMP really well". That implies that it doesn't actually do SMP really well -because a lot of legacy codes still kind of relies on the one kernel lock. You all know the basic way SMP kernels always start off. So, for example, networking filesystems can avoid the kernel lock because now we actually have the infrastructure for doing fine-grain stuff but nobody has wrotten code [for this yet]. So 2.2 in some sense is SMP-ready but obviously nobody will claim that it scales all that much better than 2.0 although some paths have been cleaned up. Basic process handling, stuff like that has been cleaned up a lot. So it is more scaleable but certainly not anywhere close to where we want to be.

Another big change in 2.2 has [involved] making the filesystem infrastructure at least look the way I wanted it to be. There's all the new caching stuff is in place. The page cache has been improved to the point where it is actually possible to do write-through page caching too, although right only a few filesystems now use that feature. NFS, for example, does write-through page caching. But the other disk-based filesystems still use the old buffer cache to do writes, even though the new page cache is there to really handle all the rest of the I/0.

So you get the idea about 2.2. All the basics are in place --but we now need to take full advantage of the work that we've completed over the last two-and-a-half years. And that brings us to what we want to do and what we're working on right now.

There are fairly obvious deficiencies when it comes to the kernel. One of them is simply device support. One thing that comes up fairly often in the PC world right now is USB and we're working on items like that. FireWire is also being investigated. At a less frantic pace, but it is still being looked at. The other issue is scalability. We've had some interesting troubles with certain large companies. They made us look really bad by selecting exactly the right benchmark for us┘ [The results were] interesting. But it also got a lot of people motivated to do the things that they knew they had to do anyway. So our long-range plans [to be completed] "in a year" suddenly turned into "next week". Right now, for example, the current 2.3 series already contains the fully threaded networking code, but it's really not turned on yet because a lot of it is still behind the one kernel lock. But it's there and people are testing the waters by turning off the kernel lock for all the filesystem code and doing stuff like this. The same is true of filesystems. We actually have patches to turn off the kernel lock for basically all the interesting paths through the filesystem. The patches are so ugly at this point that you really don't want to look at them too much because you'd go blind┘

That's [an overview of] what is going on when it comes to the kernel. Obviously a lot of the really interesting stuff is also going on in user mode and that's actually where most of the excitement has been coming from in the last year (with the Oracle and Lotus Domino announcements, for example --but I'm not even going to go into those issues unless I'm asked).

Then there are the non-technical issues. I'll just mention [these in passing] because it's not what I'm [involved in], but obviously things are going on with Linux. Companies are filing with the SEC. That's kind of exciting for those companies, and I wish I had more stock options... But the most interesting story happened a few months ago when Microsoft suddenly woke up and started really doing a PR campaign for Linux. For a few weeks I really could relate to Scott McNealy. I could understand why the guy hates Microsoft. I was like "oh, yes. Scott is my best buddy" and that was something really new. It's not that I have been unfriendly with Scott, it's just that I never was never all that interested in Microsoft. Suddenly I could understand what Scott was all about┘ There's a teaching there and I'll call it "the Sun disease" but it's true of others too. You start really hating your competition to the point that instead of doing the right thing for your customers, you try to screw over your competitors any which way you can┘ and then you come up with bad licenses for your new programming languages... Completely hypothetical example [laughter and clapping]. I was almost in a situation where I was thinking, "Okay, how can I screw Microsoft?" You start not thinking clearly.

Microsoft essentially paid for a benchmark and we really sucked at the benchmark compared to NT. Everybody was really stunned because it was the first time this had ever happened. People just thought that the numbers were basically made up and couldn't be true. It turns out that yes, they did do a few fairly ugly things and they did select the hardware to really show off NT and really show off just how bad Linux was. But it turns out that most of [the results] were actually true. They just found the benchmark for which NT had been optimized for during the last few years and for which Linux hadn't been optimized for at all. And that made me feel personally really, really bad and we spent a few weeks in an extensive PR fix-up campaign trying to educate people about lies, damn lies, statistics and benchmarks. You probably all know that benchmarks can prove just about anything if you get to select the benchmark. But it's kind of interesting having to be in the position to have to explain this to some people that actually wanted to be convinced of this. One of our advantages was that the press was very open to trying to understand the Linux viewpoint. I felt bad for a while. Then a guy from Australia sent me the same benchmark and also pointed out "how can we fix this". I realized that Microsoft wasn't the enemy at all. They were actually doing a good thing. They were pointing out that, hey, we suck at some things. Now I consider the anti-Linux group at Microsoft to be just a Linux user in disguise. They're trying to find the really bad problems in Linux. They haven't produced much so far but I expect that we'll get some really good bug reports from them... Bug reports are good. The only problem is that they don't go through the normal channels... If you look at it that way it's not that bad. You get to read about these bugs in the "Wall Street Journal" instead of getting them in personal e-mails. But eventually you get the information and the bugs can be fixed. So I'm fairly optimistic.

So what is the plan right now? There were obviously a lot of things we did wrong in the 2.2 series. The most strikingly big mistake was that [the project took] two-and-a-half years. The excuse was that as Linux grew and grew more complex more [development] time was needed. Developers don't want to be in a code freeze all the time. You want to have a long development cycle. A few things just brought this to a head, and we are now looking at these excuses and trying to find out if they actually make sense. Particularly [the excuse that] as things get more complex and larger they take longer to mature. Well, that excuse really sucks.

It turns out that what you actually want to do as things get larger and more complex is make many small incremental changes so that you don't go on for two-and-a-half years until a release goes public. Right now the plan is to actually try to fix the problems we are aware of and that we had planned to fix anyway and just fix them as quickly as we can and make a 2.4 release this year. I don't know if that is actually a workable plan but that's the plan. The deadline is October. I always miss my deadlines so maybe we'll have it by Christmas. But the plan is to just fix those things we know we suck at and get the release out and be really proud of how well we do. And then somebody will find how we suck at something else and we're back to square one --but not quite because at least we'll have a new stable base to work from. But this new release is not all about fixing problems. There's a lot of excitement in the new stuff. But you don't have to take that into account [in the same way] because people actually want to do the new and exciting stuff and never have lacked the time to do that.

So, I've given you the past, the now and the future and now we move on to the "Linux gripes" session and see where that gets us...

CNET.com - News - Enterprise Computing - Defining the limits of open source

Linux creator Linus Torvalds may be the best-known success of the open source programming movement, but he believes proprietary software still has a place.

"There's a lot of power in combining the notion of having open source and having traditional proprietary software and letting everybody live the way they want to live," Torvalds said during a panel discussion yesterday at the LinuxWorld Expo here.

"Getting into whether you're proprietary or not is a waste of time."

With open source software, anyone is free to modify and redistribute the original programming code without worrying about things like signing patent licensing agreements. Hundreds of voluntary programmers across the Internet, led by Torvalds, have been collectively responsible for the development of Linux, an operating system now being embraced by big-name computing companies.

Speaking before an audience packed with open source advocates, Torvalds said he releases all his Linux software as open source. "But at the same time, I enjoy working at a commercial company, and the work I do is going to be very much a commercial software that nobody plays around with," he said. Torvalds is an employee at Transmeta, a highly secretive Silicon Valley company.

However, not everyone on the panel concurred with Torvalds' acceptance of proprietary technology. In particular, Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU effort to create a free version of Unix--free in the sense of being unshackled by proprietary restraints. Stallman also is founder of the Free Software Foundation.

Because of industry secrets and patents, it may not be possible in five years to run a computer with the GNU/Linux operating system, Stallman said. He also expressed concern that the major Linux distributors all include "non-free software."

The core code of Linux is distributed under the GNU general public license, which guarantees programmers the right to modify and redistribute the software however they want, so long as their changes also are distributed under the general public license.

Stallman and Torvalds came somewhat closer to agreement in their mutual desire for changes to loosen patent law in the United States.

Existing patent law is a problem both for the open source movement and for proprietary companies as well, Torvalds said. "Something should be done to try to make changes to the patent system," perhaps by not granting them in the first place or by allowing other companies to use the information despite the patents, he said.

The remarks are intriguing in light of the fact that the first public glimpse of Torvalds' company, Transmeta, came in November, when the company was awarded a patent for combination chip-software technology that would enable high-speed emulation of other chips.

Other open source luminaries in the discussion were Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language, Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, and moderator Eric Raymond, author of the open source manifesto " The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

The panel discussion often took on moral tones. Though Stallman sometimes elicited groans from the audience with his contentious tone, he received a standing ovation from the audience after panel moderator Raymond remarked, "If it weren't for Richard Stallman, probably none of us would be here today."

Torvalds adopted the moral high ground himself. "Anybody who tries to force his views on anybody else is not being ethical," he said. "You don't want to get in an argument. You want to show them the better way and they will follow."

Life After Linux Holds New Set of Challenges For Its Proud Creator -- note the last two questions

     Q: After creating Linux, which has become such an icon of the movement to create free, open software, how does it feel to work for such a secretive company?
     A: For me, open source hasn't been a philosophy per se. It hasn't been a goal in itself. I think that open source is a very solid means to reach other goals. There is an ideological point to it as well, but that is . . . an added bonus. I'm an engineer who really likes the notion of open source. But I never had any philosophical problems with working with a company that is very tight-lipped. Linux is what I do for fun. It's what I do because I think it's important. It's what I do because I just love working on computers. When I do something for fun, I think it's important to share with others and make that part of the fun. At the same time, when I do something for work, that's my work. I think open source is a very good medium for doing certain things. At the same time, it's very clear that it's sometimes easier to do things in a closed area. So you kind of have to balance the advantages of open source versus the advantages of being closed. I'm actually hoping that a lot of what Transmeta is doing will eventually be sent back to the open-source community.

     Q: How much time do you spend on Linux now?
     A: A lot of time. I tend to work fairly long hours. Just reading e-mail basically takes three hours a day. I mean that's just reading e-mail. And then, if you actually want to do something about that e-mail, then the time is just unbounded!

     Q: Have you financially benefited from the success of Linux?
     A: Not really. Some of the early [Linux] vendors actually sent me some checks just to show their gratitude and someone calculated that I had an hourly wage of about 5 cents an hour. Even though I didn't benefit financially from Linux itself, the kind of indirect benefits were good. I mean how many people fresh out of school can basically select what place they go to work? I [also] got some stock options from some companies. It's noticeable, but it's not that much. It's just at the point where we're finally considering buying a house. In Silicon Valley, that's actually a big deal.

     Q: Do you regret making Linux open source?
     A: The fact is that if I hadn't made it open source, if I hadn't done it like I did, Linux wouldn't be where it is today and so I wouldn't be rich anyway! I would probably be very upset if it wasn't for the fact that I get more credit than I probably deserve, right? There's been thousands of people working on Linux, and I get credit for a lot of it.

[Nov. 11, 1999] IHT TribTech 11-18-99

Q. What kind of college student writes an operating system?

A. A computer-science student. I used to be this math nerd, sort of way back when. I was the nerd of the class, in a positive way. That is how I got in touch with Unix in the first place. Face it, if you did not learn it in computer science, you would never have seen Unix five years ago

well, 10 years ago. How time flies.

Q. What would make a consumer want Linux?

A. Very few people are going to change their operating systems. I have used the term ''it's like doing brain surgery on yourself.''

What is the point of having Linux in the first place? The point of having Linux in the first place even in that kind of market is because you want to avoid the kind of excesses that Microsoft has gone to. If the technology is solid, the user is going to be enjoying the experience a lot more.

Q. But it is a chicken-and-egg question. Consumers will not use it if they cannot get programs, and programmers will not write for it if consumers do not use it.

A. Oh, yes, I agree. Regardless of all these new Internet appliances, in the near future Microsoft does have a monopoly on the desktop. Do I let that discourage me? No, I don't care.

[Aug  12, 1999] ZDNet: Torvalds spells out what's ahead for Linux

... He said the 2.2.11 kernel, the current stable kernel, was finished as of Monday. It included mainly security fixes and some driver updates.

Now his attention turns to moving to a 2.4 kernel. Originally, Torvalds said, he wanted to make the jump from 2.2 to 3.0, but decided against it for fear of an upgrade cycle that dragged on too long.

"The 2.2 kernel took two-and-a-half years, and that's too long," he said. "So instead of aiming for the sky, we wanted to refine the existing features in 2.2 and put them to their best use."

That means symmetric multiprocessing support will be fine-tuned, and support for USB (Universal Serial Bus), plug and play and PCMCIA will all find their way into the 2.4 kernel.

The 2.4 kernel will also fix those out-of-memory characteristics that made the OS choose bad processes to kill in order to preserve memory, Torvalds said.

Torvalds also spent a good amount of time talking about what didn't make it into 2.4.

For example, a journaling file system and advanced clustering will take longer to develop, so they will not make the 2.4 release, he said.

... ... ... 

He sounded as if he liked the shorter, tighter development cycle, which earlier in the day he said added much-needed discipline to the development process.

... ... ... 

And Torvalds did not want to seem exclusionary. When asked what non-technical users interested in Linux could do to contribute to "the movement," he encouraged that user base to get involved.

"That's not to say non-kernel developers are low-lifes," he said. "I've been saying for some time that a lot of the exciting work on Linux is outside the kernel. It's not even the program development, it's in deployment."

... ... ...

Asked at one point about adoption of Linux and related deployment issues, he said, "This is too far in user land and I'm too kernel-oriented."

[June 19, 1999] Linus Torvalds -- The father of Linux talks about the OS' heritage and future -- the father of Linux again ;-)

What is Linux's road map for the future?

There's never really been a road map. In the sense that the Linux user base has been changing fairly rapidly, making a five-year plan just would not work. A year ago the main user for this was still on a kind of technical workstation, a small scale Web server. And suddenly the enterprise-like large-scale computing came. It wasn't something that Linux had really been used in but it meant that suddenly a lot of new user interest was in a completely new area. So we're moving on to doing better and better things and it's not really planned. It's more of a reaction to what people need.

In your opinion, is it a problem that all the principal kernel developers of Linux, except for you, work for Red Hat? How will this affect future versions of Linux? 

Not all of them work for Red Hat. I think that Red Hat has been very good. They were the first with a serious amount of funding, which helped them snap up people in the early days when few other Linux vendors could do that. They've also been very flexible and they've been very good at, especially here in the [United States], making their name well known. A lot of Linux developers are actually working for either independent companies like me or other Linux distributors. But yeah, Red Hat does have some very high-profile people but it certainly isn't at the point where things are very unbalanced.

[June 17, 1999]Torvalds Pledges Speedier Linux Upgrades --  Linus changed his position -- kernel upgrades will nbe faster not slower as he preached before. 

Speaking to 350 Linux enthusiasts crammed into a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant Tuesday night, the father of Linux, Linus Torvalds, pledged to curtail the time between Linux kernel upgrades.

Citing the need for smaller, more incremental upgrades to the open- source operating system, Torvalds says he is trying to roll out the next major Linux release, version 2.4, by this fall.

This would be significantly faster than version 2.2, which came two-and-a-half years following the previous major release. Linux 2.0 also came 18 months after the release of version 1.2.

"We need to make the release cycle shorter... two-and-a-half years was way too long," says the bespectacled Torvalds, who keynoted last night's banquet benefiting the Linux Debian project.

Part of the solution, says Torvalds, will be scaling back changes made with each release. While he won't call it a feature freeze, Torvalds hints that enhancements angling for version 2.4 could see a final decision within the next month. Features considered too ambitious or distant could be postponed for the following release.

This could spell easier upgrades for open-source enthusiasts. "[Version] 2.2 was a big deal for some people to upgrade... It should be a small, incremental step," Torvalds says.

[June 17, 1999] Kernel fragmentation issues surfaced on a talk in San Francisco

....Linux progress on the desktop eyed by OS founder (InfoWorld)

Speaking at a meeting of the Bay Area Linux User Group, Torvalds said Release 2.4 of the Linux
kernel is due this fall, featuring USB high-speed peripherals support and ensuring scalability to four
CPUs in a multiprocessor system, with an eye toward eight CPUs. 

Torvalds also said he plans shorter intervals between releases of the OS. The release date for
Version 2.2, a predecessor to Version 2.4, slipped by a year as the growing popularity of Linux
prompted developers to take more time to write code, Torvalds said. 

Torvalds also predicted that the next version of the Linux kernel would be out by the fall, though he said the date could slip. He also said that Linux versions would include USB support and the ability to scale to a larger number of processors.

One attendee asked Torvalds whether he was worried about the kernel fragmenting. Torvalds predicted various distributions of Linux would differentiate themselves by running better on different devices, but he said it wouldn't splinter in the same way that Unix has.

A fragmented Linux will emerge, albeit not as severe as what has plagued the Unix OS, Torvalds said. 

"Do I see fragmentation for the Linux kernel? There is certainly going to be some of that," Torvalds said. 

Some devices will require different levels of the OS, he said. "You shouldn't even try to enforce a single [kernel] on everybody," he said. 

  

[May 5, 1999] ABCNEWS.com Transcript of Chat With Linus Torvalds

Linus on Linux Inventor Torvalds discusses the OS phenomenon

PC Week: Give us the short history of Linux's development.

Torvalds: Basically, I invented it eight years ago, almost exactly eight years ago. It started small, not even an operating system. It was just a personal project. I just was doing something fun with my new machine. It kind of evolved through luck and happenstance into an OS, simply because there was very much a void where there wasn't much choice for someone like me. I couldn't afford some of the commercial OSes and I didn't want to run DOS or Windows -- I don't even know, did Windows really exist then?

About seven years ago I made the first very, very raw version of Linux available and some people wanted to look at it and play with it.

PC Week: All OSes will co-exist, but much has been made of the "Linux threat" to Microsoft Corp. Are you comfortable with that?

Torvalds: I'm comfortable with the "Microsoft killer" idea. It's kind of fun to see how people position it, because that wasn't the reason and still isn't the reason I developed Linux. I think Microsoft has been doing a really bad job on their OS, and obviously it's an interesting dynamic to people.

PC Week: How have they done a bad job with Windows?

Torvalds: Well, they've handled it well from a marketing standpoint. But from a technical standpoint, they have not done so well. Still, they are extremely successful. I just think there are a lot of people who want an alternative.

PC Week: You could have copyrighted Linux and made a fortune. Why did you make it an open source code operating system, and will that model work in the future as Linux acceptance grows?

Torvalds: It started out as a personal belief that, yes, open source was needed. Then, when it got large enough, I encouraged people to license their own development, their own parts. Now there are multiple owners sharing all these licenses.

I did it partly because I didn't want to have the paperwork to deal with that. In another way, I tied everybody's hands behind their backs. Nobody can fundamentally change it now because they'd have to coordinate everybody who owns these pieces.

That makes people trust Linux more. Take Red Hat. They're not afraid of my competing with them, because they know I can't, but I wouldn't want to. The whole open-source model has worked out extremely well. It would be stupid to try and change it.

[April 30, 1999] CNET News.com - Linux creator We will crush Microsoft (Comdex Spring/Windows World trade show)

CHICAGO--Bill Gates may think Linux has limited appeal, but the operating system's creator had no trouble packing the house here today with fervent supporters.

Linux inventor Linus Torvalds rallied his troops and took shots at operating system rival Microsoft at a press conference held at Comdex Spring/Windows World trade show.

Fresh on the heels of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates's keynote just down the hall in the same building, Torvalds outlined the success of Linux, welcomed growing industry support and confidently presented a sunny market outlook for his open source operating system.

Torvalds said Linux will reach success because Windows is "just not good enough."

A big reason for Linux's early acceptance is that "what was out there was not good enough. Microsoft does a lot of pretty good programs and they really suck at other things," Torvalds said to a cheering audience, made up mainly of Linux supporters.

Torvalds said in 1991 there was just one user of Linux--him. Currently there are more than 7 million users, and he said he expects it to "take over Windows as the most popular" operating system, which caused an even louder eruption of cheers from the audience packed into a conference room at Chicago's McCormick Place exhibition hall.

The story of the Linux kernel -- an interesting opinion about microkernel

In fact, this made me think that the microkernel approach was essentially a dishonest approach aimed at receiving more dollars for research. I don't necessarily think these researchers were knowingly dishonest. Perhaps they were simply stupid. Or deluded. I mean this in a very real sense. The dishonesty comes from the intense pressure in the research community at that time to pursue the microkernel topic. In a computer science research lab, you were studying microkernels or you weren't studying kernels at all. So everyone was pressured into this dishonesty, even the people designing Windows NT. While the NT team knew the final result wouldn't approach a microkernel, they knew they had to pay lip service to the idea

Linux Magazine Spring 1999 FEATURES The Linux Interview

Linux Magazine May 1999 Copyright Linux Magazine ©1999

>FEATURES It's Linus' World, We Just Live In It.
Linus 10 (cropped)
ALL PHOTOS © GARY WAGNER

You probably know Linus Torvalds as the moving force behind the operating system that is reshaping the computing industry. But did you also know that he owns a four-wheel drive, orders steak and beer when given the chance, and that these days, he worries less about symmetrical multi-processing support in Linux 2.2 than he does about being away from his wife and two kids?

Linux Magazine had the unique opportunity to sit down with Linus Torvalds over dinner, near the headquarters of Transmeta -- the mystery-shrouded Santa Clara, California company that employs him. On hand was Adam Goodman, editor of Linux Magazine, Matt Welsh, author of O'Reilly's Running Linux and senior editor of LM, and Lee Gomes, who covers technology for the Wall Street Journal.

We met Torvalds at the Transmeta headquarters and as expected, we were not allowed beyond the lobby; he also refused to answer any questions about what the company is actually up to. (Our best guess is that it is working on a chip that will compete with Intel.) From the lobby, we adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where Torvalds -- despite his wife having pleaded with him not to miss dinner at home to do yet another interview -- spent an obliging two hours answering questions. Topics ranged from Microsoft's software design philosophy to Torvalds' family tree to the differences between life in Helsinki and life in Silicon Valley. (Turns out Silicon Valley isn't nearly as high-tech as everyone thinks.)

Throughout it all, Torvalds was alternatingly insightful, sarcastic, expansive and funny, and the evening served as a great introduction to the World According to Linus. An edited transcript of our dinner-time chat follows; we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed having it.

LINUX MAGAZINE: What was your reaction to the part of the internal "Halloween" documents from Microsoft which implied that Microsoft believes that Linux skims the cream of the crop of ideas, and that the company was investigating the idea of using legal tactics against Linux?

Linus Torvalds: I would love for that to happen. It would show people just how sleazy the other side is. And who would they sue? Would they sue me? Because it's very obvious in Linux how the code was developed, unlike with a lot of commercial companies. And you can actually follow it backwards from the origins. You actually have a historical record. You can say, "OK, that was how the code looked at that point. Two weeks later it looked different." You can prove the code was developed through evolution and not through stealing someone's idea.

LM: But why would it be sleazy if they sued?

Torvalds: It's not sleazy per se to sue, although I think the United States does it too much. I think that the sleazy part would be the motivation for suing. It would be very obvious that they would have been searching for any other way besides the straightforward technical or marketing approach to try to trample the underdog. But I don't think it will happen. They might have done something two years ago, but it's too late now because Linux is too high profile. It would make the front pages. The Halloween documents called Linux "Best of Breed" and said it stole a lot of ideas from other operating systems. I freely admit to stealing ideas. That's what evolution is all about. Stealing ideas. Of course, you shouldn't steal other people's work. UNIX is obviously the mother of Linux in that sense, in that we stole all the basics. But a lot of ideas come from a small operating system called Plan 9 that was done by a lot of the same guys who did UNIX in the first place. Plan 9 is not something that a normal person would like to use, but it had a lot of nice ideas. So we stole some of them. NT has a "send file" system call, so we did that too, because we could do it so easily and it is actually a reasonably useful thing to have. It copies a file from the kernel space directly on to a socket, for example. It's what you want to use if you are an FTPserver or a Webserver.

LM: Is there anything about Microsoft you like or admire?

Torvalds: I like a lot of their applications. I used to use PowerPoint to make my slides. I still think PowerPoint is a perfectly good application. It's not a great application, but it's one of the better ones out there. I just think that Microsoft is very marketing driven, and that results in some good decisions but it also results in bad decisions. And I think that in the long run, especially for technical areas, it results in really bad decisions. You see that with DOS and Windows and Windows NT. And they haven't stopped making the bad decisions.

LM: So what are the bad decisions they are making?

Torvalds: Well, decisions that I consider bad aren't necessarily decisions that a Microsoft shareholder would consider bad.

LM: But don't you think that ultimately, it's the quality of the technology that matters in the long run?

Torvalds: I think it actually does. But I think it's really in the long run. And you can always make the argument that you can mess it up in the short run and then start over. That's what Microsoft tried to do with NT. The first versions of NT didn't run all that many Windows programs, and they had to make a lot of changes to make it run more. And all of those changes were exactly the kind of changes they wanted to get away from in the first place! One problem is that when you have a large company like Microsoft, you tend to use the "Mythical Man-Month" approach, in which you add people to a project. But the sad part about that is that in a complex technical area -- and an OS is one of the more complex technical areas there is -- when you add people, you dilute the knowledge. You have people who know their subsystems, but you don't have people who know how they work together. And when you do that over a few years, you end up with a system that doesn't work well internally. You have 30 development teams that each do one feature, and then when you try to put the features together, you notice that hey, they don't actually fit. They make assumptions that the other team broke.


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Linus 34
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LM: Where do get your information about Microsoft?

Torvalds: Mailing lists. A lot of people send me rumors just because they know who I am. I don't actually have people at Microsoft telling me what's up.

LM: Do you know any Microsoft people?

Torvalds: I know some people who got hired by Microsoft.

LM: Has Microsoft ever asked you to work for them?

Torvalds: No.

LM: Would you ever?

Torvalds: I don't see why not, if they had an interesting enough job. I probably wouldn't, because I don't think they have an interesting enough job for me to do. But they have the money to make it very tempting.

LM: So what would it take to get you there?

Torvalds: Essentially free hands and lots of money.

LM: So you don't consider it out of the question?

Torvalds: The free hands part of the agreement would have to mean that I could continue doing Linux, and that it's my work, so they can't own it. I went to Transmeta not for the big money but because of the interesting work. My contract says that I can work on Linux and it's not Transmeta property even when I do it on company time.

LM: I don't understand how Linux and Transmeta overlap.

Torvalds: They aren't supposed to! I can't say anything about what Transmeta does. When it comes to Linux, however, I can say whatever I like. That's one of the good things about doing Linux. When journalists interview me, I never need to lie.

LM: We have been talking a lot about Microsoft. Do you think about them as much as some other people seem to?

Torvalds: No. Normally, Microsoft never comes up on the development side, because they are very rarely doing anything interesting that we want to try on a kernel level.

LM: Does their success bother you?

Torvalds: No, what bothers me is not their success. But there are some secondary things that result from that success that have been bothersome. A year ago, for example, there were people inside companies that wanted to deploy Linux for internal use -- it happens all the time. They told me that they tried but had been overruled by management who said, "We are an NT-only shop." That's not Microsoft's fault, unless they pressure people into doing that, which they may or may not do. But it's a secondary effect of their dominance in the market.

LM: If another company had won the software wars the way Microsoft has -- say Sun or Apple -- do you think the world would be different?

Torvalds: Maybe Linux wouldn't have come to be -- because I wouldn't have needed to build it if there had been a default operating system that was technically more sane. I don't particularly admire the Sun OS, but at least it makes sense to a large degree. I actually disliked Solaris when they introduced it. But that's because I came from a university background, and SunOS is what I used. What I started out trying to do was to make Linux essentially the same environment at home as I already had at the university. That was one of the driving reasons why I did Linux, because finally at the university I had found an operating system that made sense, that you didn't have to fight to make it do what you wanted it to do. I wanted to have that at home, and I couldn't, because I couldn't afford it.

LM: Sun always claims the moral high ground vis-a-vis Microsoft. Do you view it that way?

Torvalds: I think Sun has a lot of interesting ideas. I like them technically a lot more. As a company, though, I don't see any big difference. However, you should hold the giants to different standards than the little people, and right now Sun is one of the little people. They aren't the nicest little people, but if you're small, it's OK to be mean. [Laughs.]

LM: People always talk about Linux and Microsoft. But isn't Linux equally threatening to Sun? If you run Linux on a standard Intel PC, you aren't going to buy a lot of Sun workstations, are you?

Torvalds: Well, a year ago, people were saying that UNIX was going away completely. But today that's not how people see it. People are seeing NT failing and renewed interest in UNIX, partially because of Linux. So I actually think that Linux is very much in the same market as Solaris, but at the same time Linux actually helps revitalize some of the UNIX market. So far at least Linux has been in the low end of the UNIX market, where niche vendors haven't done that much. They tend to have much higher profit margins in the larger installations where Linux hasn't yet penetrated. So in that sense, Linux is much more competitive with NT, because it's used in the same kinds of places.

LM: To the extent that Linux is at the low end -- is that permanent?

Torvalds: I don't think so. But at the same time I think the low end is fairly interesting. The low end for me is actually dual- and quad-CPU machines. It's not really low end. How-ever, it's not the high-end servers.

LM: But can Linux also play in the high end, like with mission critical applications?

Torvalds: Two years ago, you wouldn't have even asked that. Today, you are asking that question! It is definitely moving towards that. NT was that way too. Two years ago you wouldn't have considered NT for a real server -- today you might. For a lot of mid-class servers, NT is perfectly fine. But I think Linux has already overtaken NT when it comes to scalability to larger machines.

LM: Three years from now, what degree of multiprocessor support will there be in Linux?

Torvalds: I'd say that three years from now you will regularly see up to 16 CPUs in one machine. After that it gets too expensive to do the memory subsystem for symmetric multiprocessing. So what you do then is you cluster them: you have 16 of these machines, and a fast network between them.


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LM: How do you feel when you think about the fact that your creation is changing the software world?

Torvalds: It's happened over eight years -- that's more than a quarter of my life! It's happened so gradually, so it seems so normal. Right now Linux has something like 17 percent of the server market ... that's peanuts. But 17 percent of the workstation market and the desktop market -- that's my ultimate campaign.

LM: Are you rich?

Torvalds: I have two kids and a wife, so ... the money rolls out at the same rate it rolls in. I do own options in Transmeta.

LM: So if they went public, you would do really well, right?

Torvalds: Yes. I'm not worried about making money, because in this area, even if Transmeta doesn't have an IPO -- and I certainly hope they will -- I still get a salary and I can still live on a salary.

LM: Other people are trying to now profit from Linux. Aren't you?

Torvalds: No. But there is one Linux company that gave me an employee stock option package even though I am not an employee. I'm not going to tell you which one.

LM: What motivates you personally? Is it something philosophical? Religious? Technical? Why the effort?

Torvalds: It started out as just personal interest. It wasn't that I wanted to change the world; I wanted to make Linux freely available, but there wasn't any deep philosophical thinking behind it. I want to have fun in my life. Not fun like parties ... I want do something that matters. The fact that it matters to a lot of people gives it meaning to me. I want to be the best I can be, and I don't plan to join the Army! [Laughs.]

LM: Do you want to change the world?

Torvalds: One hundred years from now if people asked you who were the most important people in the 20th Century, the only person who I am sure would be on the list is Einstein.

LM: What about Bill Gates?

Torvalds: He might be there in 100 years. But he won't be there in 2000 years. Einstein will. Mozart will. Jesus will be. Maybe I won't get to that level. [Laughs.] In 100 years if I am remembered as a Chopin or an Einstein I will be a hell of a lot happier than if I am remembered as a random "capitalist pig"!

LM: What is it that you enjoy about developing software?

Torvalds: There isn't a final goal -- the goal changes constantly. A good example is doing multiprocessor support. Four years ago I thought it was too expensive and normal people wouldn't have access to it; that there's no point. I wasn't very interested in it. So the first SMP versions of Linux came out without any help from me at all. Then I started to be very interested indeed because the systems are very cheap these days and it's technically a very challenging area ... I decided it was what I wanted to do. So that's what I've been working on. It's not just me, however. The fact that SMP was done without me is an example of somebody else who had a different priority.

LM: But as you go about adding features, how do you avoid doing to Linux what happened to NT?

Torvalds: In the end it will happen to anything. It's just a basic fact of software engineering that it's a lot easier to add features than it is to remove them! Adding features never breaks old programs, unless you have a bug -- and even then the bug may be so subtle that you never notice. Eventually it will happen to Linux too. The only thing you can do is to make that process as slow as you can make it.

LM: How can you make it slower in the Linux model than in the NT model?

Torvalds: There are a few ways of doing that. You have to have a basic philosophy. You have to have some fairly basic rules about how things should work so that whenever someone adds new features you can ask, "Does this make sense in the larger picture?" If you don't have a larger picture, you can never ask yourself whether some new feature makes sense. UNIX has a philosophy that makes it less susceptible to these random additions. But the Windows philosophy is to add whatever it takes -- to do whatever you have to do for marketing reasons. It's not written down anywhere, but trust me, that's what the Windows philosophy is. UNIX, however, was not quite a research operating system. A lot of research operating systems go to the other extreme, which is, "We don't care about how the world looks, because we want it to look this way, and that's the way it's going to look." You can't do that either -- that's putting blindfolds on yourself! The other thing that Linux has that NT doesn't have any more is a few fairly strong personalities. You have me, you have Alan Cox, and there are others too. You have people who actually know how it works. Say you have a bug, such as a null pointer, where the system crashes because you expect the pointer to point to a real data structure and it doesn't. The easy way to avoid the crash is to place a safety mechanism in the code which says, "If this pointer isn't null, then do this." This way, you don't get the crash because you don't use the pointer when it's trapped. The point is that if you actually understand the code, you can say,"That pointer should never have been null in the first place," and you can backtrack to find out where the real bug is. Instead of hiding the crash, you go back and find out why it happened. If you hide the bugs, you'll never find them.

LM: To what extent is Linux bug-free?

Torvalds: Nothing is bug-free! Of all the operating systems out there, the ones that are the less buggy are already a subset of what any modern operating system does. One way of not being buggy is to not do too many things.

LM: What do you think of people who use Windows?

Torvalds: The operating system itself might be bad, but that doesn't make the users who use it bad. Users who use it have very good reasons to do so. But it goes the other way too -- if people who use Windows are good users, that doesn't make Windows good.


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LM: What kind of computers does your family use?

Torvalds: My mother uses a Mac. My Dad uses Windows ... so does my sister. My wife uses Linux.

LM: Your sister -- do you think she ought to use Linux?

Torvalds: There's no reason for her to. She doesn't actually use Windows -- she uses Microsoft Works. Windows is really only a program loader. I can see why Windows 95 has 95% market share. I'm going to change it, but it's going to take some time. Give me a few more years and ask me again.

LM: How do you feel about being compared to Bill Gates?

Torvalds: It doesn't make sense. Bill Gates is a businessman. He's not a programmer. It's like comparing apples and oranges. But it does make perfect sense from a journalistic point of view -- that's something I understand because everyone in my family is a journalist. My Dad is stationed in Moscow as the Moscow reporter for Finnish radio. My mother works for the Finnish news service, my sister works in translations, my grandfather on my father's side was a newspaper journalist, my uncle is on Finnish TV. So I know how journalists work. They drink too much and they search for interesting stories. [Smiles broadly.]

LM: What about Bill Gates?

Torvalds: For all I know, maybe he's actually a nice guy. He's supposed to have a sense of humor, even if it's kind of nasty. I come from a family with a kind of cutting-edge humor.

LM: Is there a sense in the Linux community that the companies now trying to leverage Linux are just parasites?

Torvalds: I don't think that's true. To a large degree, people are happy about companies jumping in. One of the problems has been a lack of documentation. Now with companies like SGI and Hewlett-Packard jumping on to the Linux ship, when I need information about things I don't know how to use, I can go and ask them.

LM: So there's no one whose involvement in Linux makes you a little nervous?

Torvalds: A long time ago, in 1992 or 1993, when the first commercial companies came along, I was a little nervous, yes. These were people copying disks and selling them for $10 at computer user groups. I was kind of nervous about what would happen with all this "commercial" activity! But since then, everything that has happened has been so positive. Red Hat is the obvious example -- in the US, they are the largest Linux company that makes money. They have never been interested in modifying the kernel ... that wasn't what they were in it for. They're hiring Linux kernel people not because they want to modify Linux, but because they want to make sure there are people who are paid to fix bugs. What the commercial companies have done is something I never wanted to do, which is to make it packaged; to make it a nice thing that you can install off of a CD.

LM: So Compaq, Dell, IBM -- The more the merrier, as far as you are concerned?

Torvalds: Yes. I've protected myself through the copyright. Making sure that when they make changes, if they are good changes, I can use them. If they are bad changes I don't care because I don't need to use them!

LM: The whole kernel is a great bundle of copyrights, isn't it?

Torvalds: I think that's a great advantage. There are a lot of people who own copyrights on their own drivers or file systems. I happen to be the main copyright owner and I am a copyright holder on a lot of other people's code too. It's a double-bind situation. Say I wanted to be the next Bill Gates, and I thought the way to become the next Bill Gates would be to say, "Linux 2.2 may be out, but I am working on Linux 3.0, and by the way it will cost you $150." I can't do that, because I'm not the only copyright holder. And no one else can do it either. The only way to do it would be to get everyone with their hands in the kernel to agree, and that's not going to happen. This actually makes some commercial companies happier about Linux because they know that I can't be a competitor to them.

LM: How did you decide what would go into 2.2, and how will you decide what will go into 3.0 or even 2.3?

Torvalds: It's mostly timing. You want to make new releases often enough that people don't start worrying about it. Quite frankly it was too long between 2.0 and 2.2 -- two and a half years, and there were a lot of people who had to upgrade to one of the development kernels in the interim because they did SMP better, or something else. But it's not supposed to be that you have to upgrade to a development kernel because you want a feature. The situation should be that users want to be on the latest stable release, and that every year or year and a half you get a new stable release that has new features and then you move on. It's really hard to make a release. I've been wanting to make a new release for almost a year now because it was time for it. But there was always something in flux. This is why everybody has problems making new releases. This is why Windows 98 was Windows 98 and not Windows 96!

LM: So what's the difference between Linux and Windows?

Torvalds: One of the differences is that we don't make promises we don't keep. My only promise was that I told people I was trying to get 2.2 out before Christmas -- I was only about a month late.

LM: What's the process of defining what's going to be in the next release? Do you go around and talk to users?

Torvalds: You have to realize that it's not just a question of the "next release." You don't jump from 2.0 two and a half years ago to 2.2 today. What happens is that you have two and a half years of development, in the 2.1 kernel in this case, and 2.2 is just the sum of that development.

LM: So whatever 2.2 is, how did you decide what it would be?

Torvalds: It's whatever came up during development. Some of it is from developers who upgraded their machines and wanted to do something faster. Or others who started Web surfing and noticed that it's slower than it should be ... we should be able to push all the data out at wire speeds. More common is that you have users who say "this isn't as fast as I want it to be" or want some particular new feature. It's usually not large customers -- it's usually just someone out there in the middle of Siberia who has a need for something! They might send a note saying, "I wanted to do this and here is how I did it. Could you please include it in the next release." That's fairly normal. Sometimes I say, "No, because it's obvious that you are just a crackpot in the middle of Siberia and nobody else wants to do it." [Laughs.] And sometimes I say, "No, because I can understand why you would want to do this but you obviously did it the wrong way." And sometimes I say, "Yes. This makes sense. Maybe it's not bug-free but we can fix the bugs."

LM: How big is the kernel now compared to five years ago?

Torvalds: When I released the first version it was about 10,000 lines of code, now it's about 15 million. The largest portion of that is by far the device drivers.

LM: Do you write code?

Torvalds: I do some of that, but honestly 90 percent of my time these days goes into managing.


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LM: You said you would work for Microsoft at the right price. How do you think that would impact Linux?

Torvalds: It's extremely unlikely I would go to work for Microsoft in the next few years. One of the reasons I went to Transmeta is that I didn't want to go to work for a Linux company. I had Linux companies say, "Whatever Transmeta offers you, we'll top that by 10 percent." I wouldn't need to do anything specific, I just had to work there. This was two years ago when the business side of Linux wasn't that big. The reason I didn't do that is because if I had gone to work for some-one like Red Hat or Caldera, that would have given them an icon. I would prefer for them to do their own marketing on their own technical merit instead of saying, "This is the real Linux because we have Linus."

LM: Does anyone in your life, like your wife or your parents, ever say, "Hey, forget about changing the world. Why don't you get rich now?"

Torvalds: I do have the pressure from my wife, who says, "Please, could you take a vacation now?"

LM: What would happen to Linux were you to suddenly take a vacation?

Torvalds: I don't think anything really bad would happen. Right now, it might -- but in a year, it's not going to matter any more. It's already grown larger than one man. Right now people aren't quite aware of that yet. Once you have a few large companies that say, "We will ship Linux and it will be one of our main ways of selling stuff," it's grown far beyond me!

LM: How much life do you think is left in Linux?

Torvalds: I'd be surprised if they used it in the 22nd Century.

LM: But will they use it for all of the 21st?

Torvalds: We'll see.

LM: How many speeches a year do you give?

Torvalds: Four or five.

LM: How many e-mails do you receive a day?

Torvalds: A hundred and fifty.

LM: Is that all?

Torvalds: That's without being on a single mailing list.

LM: Do you get a lot of spam?

Torvalds: I don't care about spam. Some people say all they get in their mailbox is spam. They're real easy to handle -- I get 10 of them a day, and I don't even notice them. The hard work is getting the hundred mails sent to me personally and ignoring them.

LM: I heard you were recently invited to a party thrown by the king of Finland.

Torvalds: Wrong -- Finland doesn't have a king! Finland has a president. The Finnish Independence Day Ball is the social event of the year and I was one of the most popular people there. It's like Christmas at the White House, except it's done with class. What happens is that on the sixth of December, which is Finish Independence Day, you have 2,000 people who get into the president's castle. And you have live coverage on two separate TV channels, one in Swedish and one in Finnish, for three hours. And people actually watch it -- and I was there! It was a lot of fun. Not because the party was fun, but because I used to watch the event on TV myself when I was young!

LM: Are your parents now famous for being your parents?

Torvalds: It used to be that a lot of people would know my Dad -- he's a journalist and he knows a lot of people. So a lot of people used to say, "You're the son of Nils." And I'd say, "Yes." Well, now he tells me people ask, "Are you the father of Linus?"

LM: What was it in your experience growing up that allowed you to do what you did?

Torvalds: I think the main thing is that education is essentially free in Finland. You have almost free education up to university level. It may not be MIT, but it certainly is a hell of a lot better than the average just about everywhere else. And health care is free. It's fairly socialized there -- by American standards that's a bad thing! But if you come from that kind of culture, it's not a big deal when you've created a program to just make it available to others, because as a student you don't have to worry. You pay $60 a year for tuition. I think that's important -- the kind of freedom that gives you.

LM: Aren't you Swedish?

Torvalds: I really am Finnish. You can't call me Swedish just because I speak Swedish. It's like being Swiss and speaking French -- you're still Swiss. But it also means that you're much more open to the Anglo-Saxon culture because the language is much closer to English. I started reading English books when I was 10 or 11. It was not such a big deal to move to the U.S. I don't know if that made much a difference for Linux development, but it means there is more of an openness to the world.

LM: How about the way technology is nurtured in Finland?

Torvalds: It's more an issue of the importance you give to technology. You have these stereotypes, such as that Jews are supposed to think that education is very important. There's a stereotype about Finns, that they are kind of like Germans. They're supposed to work very well and think that education is important. It's like a small country of Jews! [Laughs.] There's a real acceptance of new technology, because that's what people do. Right now Nokia is the symbol of being Finnish -- a lot of people work for Nokia not because they get paid particularly well for doing it but because they like working for the symbol of Finland. But even before then, high technology was considered something you should have. I moved from Helsinki to Silicon Valley, which is supposed to be the high technology mecca of the world. But when I moved, my Internet connection became much worse. In my banking, instead of doing everything electronically, I had to use these checks. Those are things that Finns haven't used in 15 years!

LM: At what point did you realize Linux was becoming a big deal for the world, and when did you realize you were becoming a celebrity?

Torvalds: It all happened so gradually. The only point where I kind of went, "Wow," was early 1992, when it went from me knowing five other people who ran Linux occasionally to suddenly maybe 200 people who used it often. Suddenly I didn't know all the people that used it! But there wasn't a point where I said, "OK, I'm changing the world now."

LM: So what happens if you get hit by a bus?

Torvalds: Then I don't care. [Smiles.]

LM: But if I'm betting my business on Linux, I care.

Torvalds: The last stable release for the last year hasn't been maintained by me. That part isn't interesting any more. I didn't want to be there as a maintainer for a product that wasn't technically interesting, but where you just had to make sure it was stable. Alan Cox maintained the last stable release. I haven't done anything at all for 2.0 in a year. When a bug is found,Alan sends me a patch, and I sprinkle holy penguin pee on it, and it magically becomes official. If I died tomorrow because a bus struck me -- which is highly unlikely, because there aren't many buses here -- what would happen is psychologically a lot of people would be running in circles screaming. And a lot of people would feel nervous about Linux, and maybe that would delay a few Linux projects by a year or so. But what would happen eventually is that Alan Cox or someone else would pick it up.

LM: Why did you choose Tux [the Linux penguin] as the mascot?

Torvalds: I never named it -- it doesn't officially have a name. Three years ago, people thought Linux was getting corporate and needed a logo. Well, you know what it's like when really clueless people try to come up with a logo -- you get a really bad logo! People said, "We want something like the Windows flag logo." I said, "No way. I'm not getting that corporate." There were a lot of bad designs being thrown around. Then one day I happened to see a penguin by this British cartoonist -- a big fat penguin with a fish in his hand. That gave me the idea. What you really want is a cuddly animal that doesn't even try to be corporate. It tries to be nice and lovable. And I like penguins, so it's a fat penguin sitting down. I can't draw for the life of me, so the way I got people to draw it was to send out a description of what I wanted. I wanted to have fat penguin sitting down, and you can see that it's just gorged itself on herring, or had the greatest sex in its life. And that's the Linux logo.

LM: What's next for you and for Linux?

Torvalds: What's next is that I hope to take a vacation! After that I will continue looking at the 2.2 release, because you need to maintain it a while. Nothing is bug-free so we will have to follow it for a while. That's my plan for the next month or two. And then there's Transmeta. I may take a vacation from Linux even though it won't be a vacation from Transmeta.

LM: In terms of Linux, what are your priorities?

Torvalds: There are a few interesting things that people are doing, like clustering and scaling to a large number of nodes.

LM: You said you have to deal with a lot of crazy people asking you things. What was the craziest?

Torvalds: I'm not going to talk about them, because they could recognize themselves! I get some really nice people with some very outlandish proposals though, and people who have ideas about using Linux for really good things. I was once approached by someone who was interested in using Linux for teaching in Third World countries. Of course, I would be happy if they did that! But that's not how my life is going to be spent -- because if I did something like that, I wouldn't be doing Linux.

 


 

Lee Gomes covers technology for the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at lee.gomes@news.wsj.com.


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Linux Magazine May 1999

 

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Last modified: March 12, 2019