Monday, March 21, 2005

Linus Torvalds

By the time he was 10, Linus Torvalds was programming his grandfather's Commodore VIC-20. At 21, he wrote the first version of the Linux operating system.

Torvalds earned his masters degree in computer science at the University of Helsinki, where the computers ran UNIX, an operating system designed by Bell Labs. UNIX was common on huge computers with many users, but it was bulky, expensive, and impractical for personal computers. Torvalds had a PC that came with Microsoft's crappy and crash-prone operating system, MS-DOS, and of course, he hated it. He installed Minix, a PC-compatible mini-mimic of UNIX, but he wanted something more flexible and user-friendly, so in 1991 Torvalds spent several months writing a compact operating system for his PC. He almost called it Freax, but decided on Linux.

He posted an announcement to the Minix group on USENET, and made the Linux source code available to other nerds free of charge. Programmers everywhere started adding their own improvements, and eventually companies like Red Hat, Corel, Caldera, and TurboLinux began selling their own versions of Linux.

The open-source nature of Linux is its greatest strength. Instead of having paid programmers devising improvements and looking for bugs from 9-to-5 with tight deadlines and budgets and memos from bosses, Linux is perpetually being tinkered with by the most obsessed and enthusiastic high-tech hobbyists and experts. Some would say it's the difference between manufacturing and art. As a result, Linux rarely crashes -- no blue screen of death -- and ongoing improvements have made it easy to install, even if you're not an expert. It's more stable, reliable, and secure than Windows, and its users are largely immune to the gazillion worms and viruses designed to exploit Microsoft's myriad holes and bugs.

The kernel written by Torvalds comprises about 2% of the current Linux, but he still makes the ultimate decisions about which modifications are added and which aren't. As more and more Linux applications have become available, Linux surpassed Macintosh in 2003 to become the second most popular desktop operating system: Microsoft 94%, Linux 3%, Macintosh a bit less, followed by the fractional "other".

Torvalds's grandfather was a noted Finnish poet, Ole Torvalds. His father was a radical and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the '60s and is now a reporter for Finnish radio and TV. His parents divorced when Linus was young, and he was raised by his mother and grandparents. The Torvalds primarily speak Swedish, which makes them part of a small minority in Finland. He now lives near San Jose, California.

"I've tried to stay out of the Microsoft debate," he says. "If you start doing things because you hate others and want to screw them over the end result is bad."

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