Linus Torvalds' Benevolent Dictatorship


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 better.

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 anymore.

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 infrastructure.

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.


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