The Mighty Finn

Hacker, geek and software hero, Linus Torvalds has devised a system that is challenging Windows

By Janice Maloney, Santa Clara

October 26, 1998

Pale, fleshy groupies surround him on all sides, adoration in their eyes. Some are overwhelmed, speechless in his presence. Some ask for his autograph; some just want to thank him for all that he's done for them. Some call him a god and want to be among his disciples, helping spread the word.

No, he's not the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra or even Mark McGwire. This god is a geek who wears socks with his sandals. His name is Linus Torvalds. He's 28 years old, and his religion is called Linux, after a piece of computer code he wrote for kicks in 1991, while a student at the University of Helsinki, and then loosed upon the world.

In the seven years since, Torvalds' little program has become the center of gravity of a large and somewhat fanatical movement. Programmers love Linux (rhymes with cynics) because it is small, fast and free--and because it lets them participate in building a library of underground software. Silicon Valley loves Linux because it offers an alternative to Sun, Apple and, especially, Microsoft; in the past month Intel, Netscape and some of the Valley's richest venture capitalists have invested in Linux operations. Journalists love Linux--and its Finnish eponym--because his is a story in the classic David and Goliath mold.

Torvalds, like many self-made hacker heroes--and, for that matter, Bill Gates--was drawn to computers at an early age. He's been programming since he was 10 (what else are you going to do in Finland if you hate ice hockey?), when Granddad brought home a Commodore VIC-20 and recruited Linus to be his "right-hand man." Linus immediately started using the VIC-20 to write his own computer games.

Linux was born when Torvalds bought his first PC and decided he didn't like the operating system that came with it (Microsoft's DOS) as much as the one that controlled the university's minicomputers (Unix). Since there wasn't a version of Unix that ran on the PC, he set out to write his own. The next few months are a blur. "Forget about dating! Forget about hobbies! Forget about life!" he says, remembering that heady time. "We are talking about a guy who sat, ate and slept in front of the computer."

Then he did something really unusual in the make-a-quick-billion computer industry. He made Linux available for free on the Internet. More important, he released his source code, the instruction set used to create the software, so that fellow programmers could hack, hone and redistribute Linux at will. In doing so he was following a freeware tradition that goes back to the earliest days of computing.

He also became the beneficiary of that tradition, since thousands of freeware programs originally written to run on Unix also run on Linux. A CD-ROM loaded with Linux and a library of software can be purchased for $49 from Red Hat Software in Durham, N.C., or downloaded for free on the Net ( There is even a Windows-type front end that makes Linux a little easier for ordinary mortals to use. Today the number of machines running Linux is estimated at 7 million.

Not that Torvalds has made a penny of profit from his creation. For him it's been strictly a labor of love--although even love can grow cold after a while. "There are days when I get into technical arguments with people and I say, 'Screw you! I am taking a vacation for a week; I don't need this,'" he says. "But after a few days I always come back, because it's the most fun thing I do."

It is not, however, the only thing he does. Last February Torvalds moved his family from Finland to Silicon Valley. He now pulls down a six-figure salary as a full-time programmer for Transmeta Corp., a top-secret, high-tech start-up backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The combination of Allen and Torvalds has fueled wild speculation about what Transmeta might be up to in its Santa Clara, Calif., skunk works. Is it building a new microprocessor that will compete with Intel's x86 chip set? Is it using, as some seem to believe, technology borrowed from visiting aliens to develop hush-hush projects for the government? Torvalds delights in the rumors and will neither confirm nor deny anything.

Meanwhile, juggling his job at Transmeta and his ongoing obligations to Linux--which he continues to manage as it changes and grows--leaves him little free time. If he is not sitting in front of computers, he is talking about them--to the press, industry conference attendees or like-minded souls on the Net. When pressured, Torvalds concedes that Linux is unlikely to dethrone Microsoft Windows, at least in the short term. Technical merits aside, it is still largely a programmers' tool; it doesn't offer a lot of programs for the office or home, and it isn't backed by Microsoft's marketing muscle. For Torvalds these are merely obstacles that can be overcome in time. After all, he has millions of loyal programmers on his team, some of whom call him god.

How does it feel to be an idol? Torvalds shyly dips his head and averts his gaze. "It's not like I have 15-year-old girls throwing their underwear at me," he says, with a small laugh. "I think the 15-year-old geek inside me is still disappointed about that."


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Copyright 1998