[Linux-aus] Interview: Linus Torvalds' Benevolent Dictatorship
arjen at mysql.com
Thu Aug 19 08:59:03 UTC 2004
An interesting read, IMHO.
One topic of particular interest may be that Linus (contrary to HP) does
not think that Microsoft will attack Linux through litigation. Of course
there is the current TSG mess, partially funded by MS, but that's
indirect. Linus may have a point w.r.t. a direct approach.
[start of forwarded article]
Linus Torvalds' Benevolent Dictatorship
The creator of Linux says "I can't be nasty" when leading the
open-source movement since it's all built on trust and teamwork
Linus Torvalds created the first iteration of the Linux operating system
13 years ago. Since then, he has been the technical shepherd
coordinating the volunteer work of more than 1,000 people who actively
contribute code and ideas to the Linux kernel -- the core program. He's
also the symbolic leader of a movement made up hundreds of companies
that are involved in Linux development, in addition to the thousands of
volunteers. That has helped Linux become the No. 2 operating system
worldwide for server computers.
Torvalds recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Steve Hamm. Here
are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing Linux?
A: From a technical standpoint, I don't see any real challenges. Linux
has come a long way in the last 13 years. I'll do another 13 years if
that's what it takes. Technology wise, we're great. And we'll get
The only things I worry about are all the things that go around the
project. Part of it is legal issues. It's not that I think Linux has
legal problems, but that the system doesn't work as well as it should,
and crazy things happen, like the SCO suits [SCO (SCOX ) claims IBM (IBM
) breached a longtime contract by providing SCO-owned technology to
Linux developers and has filed a lawsuit claiming $5 billion in damages.
The trial isn't expected to start until November, 2005]. They will get
slapped down in court. But as Linux gets really important, strange
things come up.
Software patents concern me. I worry about some greedy companies --
possibly failing ones, trying to make trouble and abusing the system.
Software patents, in particular, are very ripe for abuse. The whole
system encourages big corporations getting thousands and thousands of
patents. Individuals almost never get them.
We have random people in random countries working on random things, and
they don't have 1,000 patent lawyers. So I'm not worried about one
patent in particular, but the whole system. It's not a problem today.
But it's a thing I can't control, unlike the technical side, where I can
actually do something.
I'm not that concerned about the threat of Microsoft (MSFT ) enforcing
patents against Linux. I think their mode of operation isn't through the
legal system. I think they hate lawyers more than most companies.
They've been on the receiving end. [CEO Steve] Ballmer and [Chairman
Bill] Gates have pride in the fact that their competition may have tried
to crush them with legal wars, but they overcame. I think they would
have a hard time using legal tactics. They would be ashamed.
Q: What makes you believe Linux will continue to gain momentum?
A: I think, fundamentally, open source does tend to be more stable
software. It's the right way to do things. I compare it to science vs.
witchcraft. In science, the whole system builds on people looking at
other people's results and building on top of them. In witchcraft,
somebody had a small secret and guarded it -- but never allowed others
to really understand it and build on it.
Traditional software is like witchcraft. In history, witchcraft just
died out. The same will happen in software. When problems get serious
enough, you can't have one person or one company guarding their secrets.
You have to have everybody share in knowledge.
Q: Some say Linux and a lot of open-source projects really aren't
innovative, that they're copies of commercial products. What's your
reaction to that?
A: I disagree. It's an easy argument to make. One reason people make it
is that, in open source, they don't see the revolutionary new versions
magically appearing. In comparison, look at commercial closed systems.
They make a new release every year or three to four years with a huge
marketing splash. They make it look very different. But it's a circus to
make it look like a sudden innovation.
In open source, you don't have a circus. You don't see a sudden
explosion. It's not done that way. All development is very gradual --
whether commercial or open source. Even when you have a big thinker
coming along with a new idea, actually getting it working takes a lot of
sweat and tears.
There's innovation in Linux. There are some really good technical
features that I'm proud of. There are capabilities in Linux that aren't
in other operating systems. A lot of them are about performance. They're
internal ways of doing things in a very efficient manner. In a kernel,
you're trying to hide the hard work from the application, rather than
exposing the complexity.
As a result of these innovations, you get good performance, better
security. Linux is actually very stable. People complain about how long
it takes us to develop new versions, but we made sure that with new
upgrades, old programs continue to run. We have programs written in 1992
that will run on the latest versions.
Also it's good to copy good ideas. It should be encouraged. We don't say
Einstein was a really smart guy and we should come up with a better
theory of relativity. We build on top of his good ideas and have new
Q: What's your role today in the Linux phenomenon, and how is it
different from your role in the past?
A: What I do mostly is I'm a communications channel. I'm one of a couple
of central points for discussions. I have all the patches come to me,
though I have sub-lieutenants doing the programming work. I'm a meeting
point, rather than a software engineer. I don't do much programming
I don't decide what needs to be done. It's defined by what people need
to get done and what they want to do. Getting it working together --
that's where I and other organizers come in. If I see something that
needs more attention, I sometimes suggest something.
If there's not enough effort going into a certain thing, it's usually
because it's hard to get started on something new. Once somebody gets
started, the others get into it. Occasionally I have to start a project
and get it far enough along that it's self-sustaining, and then I pray
for somebody to take over.
My role has changed. It didn't happen at once. The things I could
concentrate on have grown fewer and fewer, because I have to look at
things so broadly. In the early days, I used to write user programs, not
just the kernel. I did all the original application porting to Linux.
But then I started to ask people to do it.
Q: You're clearly the leader of the Linux movement, but what does that
mean? How do you lead? Are you a benevolent dictator, as some have
A: To be honest, the fact that people trust you gives you a lot of power
over people. Having another person's trust is more powerful than all
other management techniques put together. I have no legal or explicit
power. I only have the power of having people's trust -- but that's a
lot of power.
I am a dictator, but it's the right kind of dictatorship. I can't really
do anything that screws people over. The benevolence is built in. I
can't be nasty. If my baser instincts took hold, they wouldn't trust me,
and they wouldn't work with me anymore. I'm not so much a leader, I'm
more of a shepherd. Now all the kernel developers will read that and
say, "He's comparing us to sheep." It's more like herding cats.
Q: Describe the development organization and process.
A: We don't have a formal process. But a lot of companies are doing
Linux. Within them there are deadlines, when they want their own
internal work done. They have become good at knowing how our system
works. It's not time-based. We'll come in when we know that something is
better than what was before. There's no global scheduling. The companies
take what we produce when it's good enough, or they just say no.
Q: How do you pick the core kernel contributors. How many are there?
A: The lieutenants get picked. It's not me or any other leader who picks
them. The programmers are very good at selecting leaders. There's no
process for making somebody a lieutenant. But somebody who gets things
done, shows good taste, and has good qualities -- people just start
sending them suggestions and patches. I didn't design it this way. This
happens because this is the way people work. It's very natural.
Q: After SCO sued IBM, I understand that you changed the development
process to lessen the likelihood that patented code will get into the
kernel. What have you done?
A: We have always had some written and unwritten rules about how people
should behave on mailing lists and how they should send in patches, so
we can use automated tools to evaluate the patches. The process grew out
of practical reasons for doing things.
Recently we made the path of who has touched the patch explicit. We have
sign-off procedures. People who were involved sign off on their
contribution and confirm that they have the legal right to offer it. So,
if somebody has a question, we can look it up. We can see where the code
came from and who did it. If somebody asks us, we can show them we did
Q: How far can -- and will -- this go? Do you expect most software to be
developed this way some day?
A: I think much software will be developed this way. It's especially
good for infrastructure -- stuff that affects everybody. The operating
system is a classic example. It's the software you take for granted.
Open source really shines in this situation. In the long run, you can't
sanely compete with the open-source mentality for producing the software
Q: How applicable are open-source methods outside of software? Is the
nature of software and the culture in which it has developed unique in
business? Or are other kinds of businesses or creative endeavors using
some of the same methods?
A: I think the method is the scientific method. The open-source people
use it for software. So, engineering and science are all about the
open-source method. It's mainly about knowledge and information. You can
spread it without losing it yourself. Groklaw.net is the open-source
mentality applied to legal research. There are encyclopedias -- a
collection of a lot of information that's neutral. One project on the
Web is Wikipedia.
People have been playing around with using the open-source innovation
model with arts and novels and even music. I have heard discussions, but
I'm not a big believer. These things tend to be personal, and writing
text is linear. It's hard to have more than one person working on it.
Q: The U.S. has long been a leader in information-technology innovation.
Is open source a threat to its national competitiveness?
A: Open source is a tool anybody can use to innovate. It's a tool the
U.S. can use or other countries can use. If you want to keep on the
forefront of technology, you have to take advantage of the most powerful
tools, and open source is one of them. Other countries will take full
advantage of open source, and it allows them to innovate and leave the
U.S. behind -- if it doesn't innovate, too.
[end of forwarded article]
Arjen Lentz, Technical Writer, Trainer
Brisbane, QLD Australia
MySQL AB, www.mysql.com
Brisbane 22 Nov 2004 (5 days): Using & Managing MySQL Training
Training,Support,Licenses,T-shirts @ https://order.mysql.com/?ref=marl
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