How Finnish programmer's quest challenged Microsoft and made him a Net star

By Dan Gillmor, Computing Editor
San Jose Mercury News

September 8, 1996

HELSINKI -- When a Finnish newspaper checked whose name came up most often in an Internet search of well-known Finns early this summer, Linus Torvalds headed the list.

Rock star? No. Olympic hockey player? Guess again. President? Way off.

Torvalds, 26, is a computer programmer. He's known for the software he began creating as a university undergraduate -- the beginnings of an operating system that has evolved into one of the world's most interesting and successful collaborations in technology.

His project, called Linux, is a free computer operating system that by various estimates runs on between 1 million and 2 million machines around the world, including thousands of sites from which information is distributed via the Internet's World Wide Web.

Long arm of the Net

As much as any such venture, Linux has shown the power and reach of the global Internet, the worldwide network of computer networks, where it was spawned and from which it draws its essential strength. Led by Torvalds, programmers in many countries have contributed key pieces of Linux.

In the process the soft-spoken Torvalds, who still controls the operating system's fundamental development, has become a hero to Netizens who want better and different ways to work with personal computers -- and who, in many cases, fear and loathe a Microsoft-dominated world of PC software. The fact that relatively few PC users use Linux, at least next to the overwhelming majority running Windows, has not diminished the ardor of its fans.

Torvalds is no fan of Microsoft, which has a near-monopoly on PC operating systems and large categories of applications software. But Linux isn't a political statement, he said recently in his Helsinki flat.

''It's just something I wanted to do,'' he said.

What he did -- and continues to do -- is remarkable, by almost every account.

'Strong at the center'

''Development projects need to have someone strong at the center, who understands the structure of the code and overall the goals,'' said John Gilmore, a well-known Silicon Valley programmer and an activist in the Internet community. Torvalds has shown those qualities, without which the Linux effort might have splintered, Gilmore said.

Linux -- pronounced LINN-nucks -- is a clone of Unix, an operating system traditionally the province of powerful workstations and enterprise-wide networks. Linux is one of several Unix flavors that runs on lower-powered PCs powered by Intel microprocessors, as well as several other platforms including the Power Macintosh and Digital Equipment Corp.'s high-end Alpha systems. An operating system is the software that acts as a kind of traffic cop, making sure that a computer's hardware and applications software like word processors and spreadsheets work well together.

A Commodore at home

Torvalds' quest began in late 1990. Then a student at Helsinki University, he was looking for a new computer. He had been using the mainframe machines at the university, and an aging Commodore model at home.

The architecture of the Intel 386 microprocessor looked appealing to Torvalds, who had been programming since his early teens and had learned some sophisticated techniques. The 386 was a huge improvement over the earlier Intel chips, he said, but the operating system -- DOS -- hadn't changed much from earlier Intel processors.

''I knew I didn't want to use DOS,'' he said. ''I'd seen DOS.''

He tried to get a version of Unix for the new computer, but couldn't find anything that cost less than $5,000 for a basic system -- ''not an option for me,'' he said.

So in the spring of 1991, he began writing some software code to handle specific computing chores on the 386: terminal emulation, hardware ''drivers'' that would let him read and write files on disk drives, a file system and more.

''I noticed that this was starting to be an operating system,'' he said. This was Linux, version 0.01.

Spreading the word

That fall, he made the operating system available on the Internet. He also told a few people about it.

''The first thing I got was a lot of comments,'' he said. Then he got some requests for improvements and additions. And then he got some code, from others who were using the system and had adapted it to their own tastes. As contributions came in, ''It got better and better,'' Torvalds said.

One of the early Linux devotees was Theodore Ts'o, a systems programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who made the Linux code available on a computer in North America and then contributed his own programming skills to fix several of the operating system's shortcomings.

Ts'o, who is still deeply involved in the project, said Torvalds' ability to organize a large number of people has been one of Linux's key advantages. Another reason, he said: Torvalds ''isn't an egomaniac.''

Actually, Torvalds admits to having an ego: He enjoys running a project where people depend on him. But he pursues Linux mostly ''because it's a lot of fun and it's very interesting,'' he said.

In the modest, tidy apartment he shares with his girlfriend, he comes across as self-confident and brainy, but also somewhat reserved. The reserve is due in part to the fact that he's more comfortable writing English -- the main language of the Internet -- than speaking it. He and his Linux colleagues converse almost entirely in English, and almost entirely by e-mail.

Their global collaboration reached a milestone about a year after Torvalds began Linux, when they had improved the software to the point that it supported the GCC compiler, a free program written by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, based at (but not part of) the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Compilers translate programming language instructions into digital instructions that a computer can actually read and obey. Getting GCC working on Linux meant people could more easily write applications software to run on the operating system.

A 'real' operating system

Early versions of Linux were numbered 0.01, 0.02 and 0.03, followed by a jump to 0.10, 0.11 and 0.12. By February 1992, Torvalds recalled, the project was getting closer to version 1.0, signifying stability in the code along with the essential features of a ''real'' operating system.

But release 1.0 didn't arrive until March 1994. Networking -- allowing computers to connect smoothly to each other -- was the last essential component, and it didn't come smoothly. When version 1.0 hit the digital streets, Linux already had about 100,000 users, Torvalds said.

Subsequent versions brought new features and supported more kinds of hardware. Version 2.0, which arrived in June, was the first to support more than just the Intel architecture, and also had the ability to run on multi-processor machines, a feature in growing demand.

Software is free

The fundamental copyright for Linux still resides with Torvalds and other contributors, but the software is free for the taking from several Internet sites (and can be purchased on CD-ROM). Distribution works this way:

You're free to use and modify Linux, and even make a profit selling copies. But you also have to distribute the ''source code'' -- the programming instructions -- that will make what you did available to other programmers so they, in turn, can modify the system and use your innovation more effectively. And you have to allow others to redistribute your changes as well. This process is widely known as ''copyleft'' and was devised by Stallman and the Free Software Foundation.

''To make money on (free software), you have to give real added value,'' Torvalds said.

For all the value he's added to the computing world, Torvalds hasn't profited very much himself, at least not financially. Several years ago, he said, the Linux community helped him pay off the computer he was using for development, while ''four or five'' Linux users have sent him about $100 apiece as tokens of appreciation.

In addition to his satisfaction from watching the project grow, his indirect gains have been more substantial than the direct ones. There are the virtually free vacations, for example: When Torvalds travels to speak about Linux, he gets reimbursed for expenses and sometimes arranges for the sponsors to pay for his hotel for an extra week or so.

Meanwhile, the university keeps him on salary as a researcher but allows him to pursue Linux as an essentially full-time occupation.

Others are making real money. Several companies sell Linux on CD-ROMs along with applications software including word processors, spreadsheets and World Wide Web servers; a Web server is software that manages a Web site and dishes out material to people running Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Caldera Inc., a company founded by former Novell Inc. chairman Ray Noorda, is probably the most prominent of the Linux resellers. Caldera offers the operating system plus a host of desktop applications software (including the WordPerfect word processor) for prices ranging from $99 and up.

What's most important, Torvalds says, is that the basic operating system ''not lock you into anything.

''When it comes to applications, I prefer having the source (code), but I can always find another one,'' he said, ''If the operating system breaks you're stuck.''

Linux and other Unixes recently have added a capability that is of enormous value in a Windows-leaning world: Windows-compatibility, at least in a limited way, via the ''Wabi'' Windows emulation software that runs on Unix and can run Windows programs without having to own the Windows software itself.

''Wabi is good enough for a lot of people,'' said Torvalds, who uses it mainly to run Microsoft PowerPoint, the one Windows program he says he truly likes using. Wabi also costs money, though a free version is under development.

Intrigued by Java

Torvalds is intrigued but skeptical, meanwhile, about Java, the widely discussed programming language from Sun Microsystems. A Java program can, in theory, run on any operating system or other software that supports it; Web browsers were among the first software programs to support Java.

The Java boom is in part spurred by anti-Microsoft fervor, because it might threaten Microsoft's hegemony on the PC. Torvalds disdains the Java hype, and doesn't use the language himself. Yet ''the timing for Java is good,'' he said, because people are truly looking for an alternative.

''Microsoft operating systems are bad, and their morals are even worse,'' he said. ''But they make some good applications.''

Torvalds said he's been offered jobs at several companies, but remains happy where he is -- drawing a salary at the university, where he can pursue Linux and other interesting work, and living what he calls an essentially normal life. (Among other non-Linux activities, he enjoys reading and playing snooker, a form of billiards.)

Anyway, he laughed, companies considering job offers probably ''assume I'm a rabid communist and would laugh in their faces.

''I could be bought,'' he said, ''but Linux couldn't be.''


1996 Mercury Center.