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Reclusive Linux founder opens up

Linux founder Linus Torvalds now makes his base in Portland, Oregon.


You can watch the Linus Torvalds interview on Global Office on CNN International at these times:
03:30 ET/08:30 BST/1530 HKT/1300 New Delhi
09:30 ET/14:30 BST/2130 HKT/1900 New Delhi
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Global Office
Linus Torvalds
Microsoft Corporation

(CNN) -- Portland, Oregon is the unlikely capital of a global software revolution. The revolution is called Open Source. And its leader? Linus Torvalds, the reclusive founder of Linux.

Linux is the free software code developed by a global community of programmers. It's also the world's fastest growing operating system and number two behind Microsoft.

Torvalds works full time overseeing the development of Linux which he created back in 1991 while at university in Helsinki.

Usually media shy, the 36-year-old Finn invited Kristie Lu Stout and the Global Office team into his home for an insight into life at the helm of the operating system that is giving Microsoft some serious headaches.

Kristie Lu Stout: What role do you play in the development of Linux today?

Linus Torvalds: Well today what I do mostly is actually communication. I started out as the main developer but these days what I do is act as the central point for other people who do a lot of development and I gather it all together and basically communicate with people what needs to be done and so on.

KLS: What's your ballpark figure in terms of how many Linux developers there are out there?

LT: I actually only work with a few handfuls so I tend to directly interact with maybe 10 - 20 people and they in turn interact with other people. So depending on how you count, if you count just the core people, 20 -50 people. If you count everybody who's involved; five thousand people -- and you can really put the number anywhere in between... Almost, pretty much all, real work is done over e-mail so it doesn't matter where people are.

KLS: So you have the core people, you have the developers and you have the testers. What do you think motivates everyone, drives everyone to create the best work possible to create a good product?

LT: A lot of the core people just feel excited about the technology. And that's why a lot of people just start; that's where I started from, it was just the excitement of doing something yourself. It's kind of like a hobby. You can tinker with cars, you can tinker with computers. There are a lot of technical issues that are just very exciting if you're that kind of person...At least from the developers' standpoint, nobody does it because they hate Microsoft. None of the people I work with do it for that reason. They do it because they love doing what they do.

Tremendous growth

KLS: In the last year we've seen tremendous growth in Linux usage especially on desktop computers, especially with stuff out there like Open Office, especially the Firefox browser. Do you think we're nearing a tipping point where Linux is becoming mainstream?

LT: Well as far as I'm concerned it's actually been pretty mainstream. Already I've been doing this for 15 years and you have to realize that I've got a slightly different viewpoint on the whole thing.

KLS: I understand, but let's say your mom or my mom, they're surfing the Internet but maybe they're not surfing with Firefox just yet or they don't really know what Linux is just yet.

LT: Open source is definitely getting to the point where a lot of people who don't actually know about the technology start to know about the notion of open source and start to use the products. Not just Linux, I mean Firefox is certainly the one that a lot of people will have seen because they prefer it, because it's better or because it's more secure or for any other number of reasons.

KLS: Another reason, because it's an alternative to Microsoft?

LT: Well that is, I think, played up more than it necessarily needs to be. Because there is a very vocal side to this which is the whole anti Microsoft thing. I think it makes a better story than is necessarily true in real life.

KLS: Now let's go back to the beginnings when Linux first started in the early 1990s. What motivated you to give away the source code?

LT: I didn't start thinking I want to give out the source code. What I started doing, already at that point I was 21, I was at Helsinki University and for half my life I'd been doing programming. All the projects I'd ever done had been projects for my own enjoyment -- technical challenges, but also to just solve issues that I had. And Linux really was nothing different from that. So open source was not really a conscious decision of "I want to make this open source." To a large degree open source was just a way to allow others to look at this and say, "Hey, this is what I've done -- I'm proud of this."

KLS: Do you think there was a little bit of bragging involved?

LT: Absolutely. There was a bit of bragging, there was also a bit of, hey, I still, the way I do my work is I sit these days downstairs in my basement alone. And it's nice to just talk to people and a lot of it was probably just social, just saying, hey this is a way to interact with other geeks who are probably also socially inadequate in many ways.

KLS: And you have a mascot for all this which is the penguin. How did that happen?

LT: I felt that Linux wanted and needed a very nice kind of friendly mascot to kind of offset some of the geekiness and the hard technology. So selecting an animal was a pretty obvious thing to do. And at the same time you want something that is exotic; you don't want a dog or a cat because that's just too everyday. And everybody likes penguins, so I actually decided I want a penguin as my mascot. I want it to be cuddly, I want it to be a plush toy kind of penguin and I could do that myself. So we actually farmed out that design too and we just had a small competition for who could make the nicest penguin. Now you can see the winning end result everywhere on the web.

KLS: Did you ever think about getting into the money game, getting insanely rich from the operating system, which is now the fastest growing operating system in the world that you created?

LT: Well I got rich enough. This isn't bad. It wasn't what I was interested in. In many ways I am very happy about the whole Linux commercial market because the commercial market is doing all these things that I have absolutely zero interest in doing myself. The commercial market is how I actually get a pay check every month. And I get it for doing what I want to do and that is the technical side. I don't want to have anything to do with the commercial marketing stuff. I think everybody is actually quite happy about this arrangement, that people can do what they specialize in, not just on the technical side but overall.

KLS: Over the years, Linux has spawned other open technologies and even an open source spirit or open source philosophy. It has engendered stuff like Wikipedia, the online open source encyclopedia or even, some could argue, citizen journalism. What are your thoughts about that?

LT: We shouldn't give credit to Linux per se. There were open source projects and free software before Linux was there. Linux in many ways is one of the more visible and one of the bigger technical projects in this area and it changed how people looked at it because Linux took both the practical and ideological approach. At the same time I don't think this whole "openness" notion is new. In fact I often compare open source to science. To where science took this whole notion of developing ideas in the open and improving on other peoples' ideas and making it into what science is today, and the incredible advances that we have had. And I compare that to witchcraft and alchemy, where openness was something you didn't do. So openness is not something new, it is something that actually has worked for a long time.

KLS: What is your favorite offshoot of the open source philosophy?

LT: That is an unexpected question. I don't even know. I think the nicest part of it is not really the open source side but the whole community side which was to me not really expected at all. But it is really what keeps me motivated these days.

KLS: Now you are something of a rock star in tech circles...

LT: I don't notice that in normal life. I don't actually go to that many conferences. I do that a couple of times a year. Normally I am not recognized, people don't throw their panties at me. I'm a perfectly normal person sitting in my den just doing my job.

KLS: How often do you get the chance to see your fellow Linux contributors face to face?

LT: Not very often. There are a few of them that are local. I meet with them very occasionally. We go out for beer or breakfast or something. We have two conferences a year that people go to and those are largely social. I mean sometimes you also work out issues face to face during the conferences. Maybe it is easier to agree, but most of it really is about the social side when you go to conferences and you will find people sitting at the same table with laptops and they will send each other emails, because it is often a better way to communicate when you have a technical issue; you can write it down more, you can point to the code.

KLS: So the face to face thing is a little bit overrated?

LT: I think so. For example I long ago decided I will never go to meetings again because I think face to face meetings are the biggest waste of time you can ever have. I think most people who work at offices must share my opinion on meetings. Nothing ever gets done. When things get done, you usually have someone come into your office to talk about it. But a lot of the time the real work gets done by people sitting, especially in programming, alone in front of their computers doing what they do best.

KLS: What are your thoughts about the future of Linux and whether or not it can continue to survive without you?

LT: It has grown so much bigger than me. Ten years ago it needed me, both personally and as a figurehead. These days, there are tons of companies, there are lots of people who know the technology. I end up being the central gathering point but it's because people know me, people trust me. I am neutral. I really like doing Linux. I like the technical challenges, I like the interaction and as long as I am the best person for it I want to do it.

KLS: So it sounds like, going forward you are still going to do the job, be the as you put it, the central focus point of the Linux development process?

LT: Right. At the same time I will also try to farm out as much as possible. I still want to be the central point, but I don't want to be the bottleneck for anything and that does require that you trust a lot of other people and you just say, "hey, you make the decision, I am not going to micro-manage," because that really doesn't work. That drives people wild and when you don't even pay them they won't accept it, so I can't afford to be that type of bottleneck either.

KLS: Is there anything else you want to accomplish going forward?

LT: No, but on the other hand I am not the kind of person that really plans ahead a lot. When I started Linux it wasn't because I wanted to be where I am today. I am more of an "everyday as it comes" type of person. I am very happy that I feel like I do something meaningful, that has made a difference, that actually a lot of people use. But at the same time I don't have and I never have had any big visionary goals.

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