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Torvalds opens LinuxWorld Expo with keynote address

February 4, 2000
Web posted at: 9:07 a.m. EST (1407 GMT)

by Joe Barr


(IDG) -- Linus Torvalds kicked off the third LinuxWorld Expo with his keynote address at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Like the venue itself, Linus's keynote was a little different than usual.

Scheduled for 9:30 a.m., the keynote didn't get started until nearly 10 as he waited for the crowd to pour into Javits and the exhibition hall. The line appeared to be longer than the last one in San Jose, but there were still seats left vacant when he took the stage, both in the 200-seat press section and in the general seating area.

At the start of his talk, Linus asked for a show of hands from those in the crowd who were Linux users and not just New Yorkers walking in off the street. Nearly everyone raised their hand. This seemed to surprise the two journalists sitting right in front of me, who didn't raise theirs.

After I scolded them for their lack of savvy, they said, "We just write about it -- [we do] not use it."

One thing that made this Linus keynote different is that instead of going through the usual slides-and-spiel and then turning the session into a question-and-answer session, Linus went through a list of questions that he had selected himself, after having been asked them numerous times in the past.

The supercomputer and the fridge

The first question that Linus posed to himself was the spectre of Linux fragmentation, which he called the bogeyman of Linux. The issue of fragmentation, he said, was one that he has avoided until now, because the question itself seems so negative. But while he thought about it while preparing for this talk, he said, he realized that fragmentation is not all bad.

He described Linux's ability to meet the needs of a wide range of users and uses as a good type of fragmentation. As an example, he said that he had seen Linux being used on everything from supercomputers to a refrigerator.

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The latter image got a few laughs from the crowd, but he really had seen one in Japan. Apparently some overburdened soul had sought to curb his appetite by putting a Web browser on the door of the refrigerator, thinking that it would give him one more chance to think about something other than food.

It was probably the effect of the New York coffee on my brain, but as he described this refrigerator I began to think about doing something similar at home. But I soon concluded that putting Internet access in my refrigerator was likely to end up triggering false SETI readings and dismissed the notion entirely.

Linus used the classic example of Unix fragmentation, in which the vendors brought what he called gratuitous differences to market, as an example of bad fragmentation, and suggested that Java is suffering from this type of fragmentation today, as vendors do battle over Java standards.

Linus pointed out that, while bad fragmentation is certainly something everyone needs to be aware of and something that Linux needs to avoid, the good kind of fragmentation is part and parcel of the open source phenomena, and isn't something to be afraid of. Rather, he said, it's something to be embraced.

As long as Linux remains modular in design and in infrastructure, Linus asserted, it will continue to satisfy the needs of a diverse customer base without falling victim to bad fragmentation.

The clash of commercialism and Linux

The next question went straight to the heart of many in the audience: the issue of Linux and money, and the potential clash between commercialism and traditional Linux values.

At the last LinuxWorld conference, Red Hat had just become the first Linux company to launch its IPO. Now that Linux has its share of IPO billionaires, Linus' second question couldn't have been more timely.

The way he answered this question shows his genius as ambassador. He managed to nearly erase philosophical differences between open source and commerce, starting with the statement that he and the Linux community have nothing against commercialism.

In fact, Linus said, the good commercial companies have many of the same values that the Linux community holds dear. They want to provide good products and make their customers happy, not "screw them over." He noted that many Linux values "work really well in a commercial setting," and added that he "didn't really think there was that much tension between the commercial side and the technical side of Linux."

He summed it up by saying, "The real point of Linux is not to be anticommercial. That is not what I started Linux to be. I know that is not what the people I know really care about. The real point of Linux has always been to make something that is nice to use and where people can actually control what they are using."

In contrasting Linux and open source with traditional software development, Linus said, "Linux actually tries to move software from being a witchcraft to being a science. What happened in the dark ages, when science came to be, and actually in other cases, like in Greece and in Egypt, was that people started openly discussing ideas, and you didn't have this shamanistic company anymore that just told you what to do."

The third and final question Linus asked himself had to do with the next release of the Linux kernel, version 2.4. He raised this question, he said, without caring whether or not it was a question the audience wanted to hear about, simply because it is what he does and where his interest lies.

Will 2.4 be here by February 17, the launch day of Windows 2000? That's been a question a lot of folks have been wondering about since a Red Hat executive in Europe supposedly confirmed that date several weeks ago, Linus said. He answered the question with a simple no.

Linus said that after the Expo, he plans to return home and issue a pre-2.4 release, which will signal developers that only bug fixes will be entertained for inclusion in 2.4 from then until its actual release date. He added that we probably won't start seeing distributions based on 2.4 until this summer.

Linus added that a lot of the work in Linux recently has been in the user space, where it is being made prettier and easier to use. To the delight of the crowd, he added, "I wouldn't know pretty if it hit me in the head." But he did say that scalability will look good up to 8 CPUs in 2.4, and that it will include support for USB and FireWire.

Release 2.4 may also be the subject of a number of benchmarks. Linus made reference to a certain benchmark where another product "kicked our butts," and said a lot of work went into making sure that didn't happen again.

I've learned from earlier keynotes that it is important to pay close attention to what Linus says. In San Jose last August, he casually mentioned that Linux was seeing a lot of interest in the embedded market. Since then, embedded Linux has popped up everywhere, and everyone seems to be trying to get in the act. When he made that modest remark in August, Mister Supersecret Transmeta Employee himself was busy working on a mobile version of Linux for his employer. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the benchmarks comparing Linux 2.4 and Microsoft Windows which Linus mentioned.

Linus did turn the keynote into an open question-and-answer session at that point, and was able to field a number of questions from the floor before time ran out. I'm not sure if it is a sign of Linus' style of keynotes becoming too well-known, or if it was the NYC influence -- but the first two questions seemed to be more advertisement for the company represented by the questioner than anything else. Linus, gracious as ever, answered them both.

Will Linux be a player in the TV set-top market? Yes.

Will there be a journaling file system in 2.4? There already are two, and SGI and IBM are bringing theirs along as well.

There were also two excellent questions from the floor. Bruce Perens (formerly of the Open Source Initiative and the Linux Standards Board) went to the microphone and said, "I want to play DVDs on my Linux laptop. Care to comment on that?"

Linus did. He summed up the current spate of lawsuits and police interrogations as having been brought about by certain companies "who want to screw their customers over" -- not firms of the sort mentioned earlier in the same keynote, which share Linux's values.

Another gentleman asked why Linux was doing so well compared to FreeBSD, a technically superior OS. Linus replied that luck and timing certainly had a hand in Linux's success relative to FreeBSD, but he added, "It's not just all about technology." He underscored the point that Linux has an active community behind it, not just a few people writing good software.

Although Linus looked as if he has aged a bit since August (perhaps the strain of the Transmeta rollout is showing), his genuine warmth and charismatic personality shone as brightly as ever. It was a cold morning in New York City, but the members of the Linux community warmly received their leader in their customary style.

As I was getting ready to pack up my notes and recorder and make a mad dash back to the hotel to make deadline on this story, I noticed that Jon "Maddog" Hall was sitting on the floor in the aisle by the first row from the stage, playing with one of Linus' daughters as her famous father finished the opening keynote.

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