Q&A: Torvalds on Linux, Microsoft, software's future

LinuxWorld has posted an interview with Linus, and as usual there are a bunch of interesting sound bits. A few here:

Lest people think that commercial and Open Source don’t mix…

CW: How did Linux, as a product, benefit by being released as it was?

Torvalds: Well, in a very real sense, if I hadn’t released it publicly, it would just have been a random small project of mine, and gotten use on my machines, but eventually it would have just been left behind as a “that was a fun project, let’s see what else I can do” kind of thing. So, Linux really wouldn’t have gone anywhere interesting at all if it hadn’t been released as an open-source product.

I also think that the change to the GPLv2 (from my original “no money” License) was important, because the commercial interests were actually very important from the very beginning, even if they were much smaller initially. Even in early ’92, you had small (hobbyist) commercial distributions that were really just cheap floppy-disk copying services, where interested individuals that were involved decided that they might as well try to spread the word and also maybe make a small amount of money on the side. The fact that I personally wasn’t interested in that part of the picture was irrelevant.

And the thing is the commercial concerns from the very beginning, even when they were small, were really very important. The commercial distributions were what drove a lot of the nice installers, and pushed people to improve usability etcetera, and I think commercial users of Linux have been very important in actually improving the product. I think all the technical people who have been involved have been hugely important, but I think that the kind of commercial use that you can get with the GPLv2 is also important — you need a balance between pure technology, and the kinds of pressures you get from users through the market.

So I don’t think marketing can drive that particular thing: if you have a purely marketing (or customer) driven approach, you end up with crap technology in the end. But I think that something that is purely driven by technical people will also end up as crap technology in the end, and you really need a balance here. So a lot of the really rabid “Free Software” people seem to often think that it’s all about the developers, and that commercial interests are evil. I think that’s just stupid. It’s not just about the individual developers; it’s about all the different kinds of interests all being able to work on things together.

..on users and developers:

CW: Which are the benefits of Linux for the users, apart from the fact that it’s free?

Torvalds: The biggest advantage has very little to do with the money, and everything to do with the flexibility of the product. And that flexibility has come from the fact that thousands of other users have used it, and have been able to voice their concerns and try to help make it better.

It doesn’t matter if 99.99 percent of all Linux users will never make a single change. If there are a few million users, even the 0.01 percent that end up being developers matters a lot and, quite frankly, even the ones that aren’t developers end up helping by reporting problems and giving feedback. And some of them pay for it and thus support companies that then have the incentive to hire the people who want to develop, and it’s all a good feedback cycle.

CW: What’s more important, Linux’s huge user base or its large developer base?

Torvalds: I don’t think of them as separate entities. I think that any program is only as good as it is useful, so in that sense, the user base is the most important part, because a program without users is kind of missing the whole point. Computers and software are just tools: it doesn’t matter how technically good a tool is, until you actually have somebody who uses it.

But at the same time, I really don’t think that there is a difference between users and developers. We’re all “users”, and then in the end, a certain type of user is also the kind of person who gets things done, and likes programming. And open source enables that kind of special user to do things he otherwise couldn’t do.

Are those special users that actually do things more important? Yes, in a sense. But in order to get to that point, you really have to have the user interest in the first place, so a big and varied user base is important, in order to get a reasonable and varied developer base.

And I would like to stress that varied part. A lot of projects try to specialize in one area so much that they get only one particular kind of user, and because they get one particular kind of user, they then get just a particular kind of developer, too. I always thought that was a bad idea: trying to aim for a specific “niche” just means that your user-base is so one-sided that you also end up making very one-sided design decisions, and then the user base will be even more one-sided, and it’s a bad feedback cycle.

Finally, an attitude about Microsoft that I think many in the community can take something away from.

CW: Microsoft has recently claimed that free software and some e-mail programs violate 235 of its patents. But Microsoft also said it won’t sue for now. Is this the start of a new legal nightmare?

Torvalds: I personally think it’s mainly another shot in the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] war. MS has a really hard time competing on technical merit, and they traditionally have instead tried to compete on price, but that obviously doesn’t work either, not against open source. So they’ll continue to bundle packages and live off the inertia of the marketplace, but they want to feed that inertia with FUD.

CW: Do you think you and the open-source software community are prepared for this battle?

Torvalds: I don’t actually see it as a battle. I do my thing because I think it’s interesting and worth doing, and I’m not in it because of any anti-MS issues. I’ve used a few MS products over the years, but I’ve never had a strong antipathy against them. Microsoft simply isn’t interesting to me.

And the whole open source thing is not an anti-MS movement either. … Open source is a model for how to do things, and I happen to believe that it’s just a much better way to do things and that open source will take over not because of any battle, but simply because better ways of doing things eventually just replace the inferior things.

–jeremy

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