[Linux-aus] Interview: Linus Torvalds' Benevolent Dictatorship

Arjen Lentz 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 
exciting quests.

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 
called you?

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 
everything right.

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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