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Learning about open source: Linus Torvalds

Saturday, May 21, 2005 at 05:54AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in Open source

This morning I finished the book Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. It was written by Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system, and the “benevolent dictator” who manages the core of that, the most successful of open source programming projects.

I obtained his book as part of my efforts to educate myself about the open source world. Torvalds is a hero to the people in that world, but I knew very little about him, and I am very late in waking up to open source. I like autobiographies and I enjoyed this quick read; I find that best way for me to learn about a new subject is to get to know the players. My impression of Torvalds is quite positive. Heck, I’d like to spend a day with him. He seems to be like many programmers I know, but one whose non-self-aggrandizing personality, strong technical skills, and unrelenting focus were ideally suited to start and then guide the Linux project.

I agree with Torvalds about that today’s computers suffer from the same problems as cars. They are not easy to get under the hood as they used to be, so there is a lot less tinkering. Kids play games instead of learning. I was lucky that there was only one game on our Apple, and that it came with the source code.

It is humbling to realize that I am older than world’s most famous hacker. Torvalds and I started with computers at almost the same time (around 1981) and frankly with the same kind of intensity—he on his grandfather’s VIC-20 and I on my family’s Apple II Plus. I also spent innumerable hours at my computer, learning about its internals, writing assembler language programs, etc; I feel a kinship there.

But while Torvalds labels himself “a nerd, a geek,” I never thought of myself that way. Even in my most obsessed hacking days, when hours could pass by unnoticed as I clicked away at the keyboard, playing with what I saw as the ultimate remote control toy, I had a life that included sports, friends, politics and news, and broader intellectual interests. Perhaps that explains why he has achieved so much more. Actually, what really explains his success is that he found a project, Unix, that so captured his enthusiasm, and the the enthusiasm of others, that he not yet left it. That is something to envy.

One of the key moments for Torvalds came when he first uploaded the sources to Linux version 0.01 to a public FTP site. It was September 17, 1991. I place that year by remembering that the same fall I went to Colorado for a year to sit alone writing software program for a small market (political campaigns) that supported me through graduate school. Torvalds, however, felt that he was following in the footsteps of scientists and academics. He made his work publicly available and free. By doing so, he allowed countless programmers to join him in making Linux a collaborative project. In version 0.12 he adopted the GPL (General Public License) copyright. Step by step the Linux operating system gathered steam and now it flows into any area that is interested.

I was also glad to know that forasmuch as Torvalds is the king of the open source world, he is still “certifiably schizophrenic” about intellectual property. He says he has strong opinions on both sides of the argument. On one side, the notion that human creativity should be shared. On the other, the business interests. Torvalds says “I have dream, that one day IP laws will be dictated by morals, not on who gets the biggest piece of the cake.” He seems to be a fan of copyright, not trade secrets or patents. I feel similarly, wanting to protect my own work, but not to be too restricted from using ideas of others.

Torvalds has a chapter titled “Why Open Source Makes Sense.” He compares an open source project to science. As he puts it, “science on its own does not make money. It has been the secondary effects of science that create all the wealth. The same goes for open source.” Taking advantage of open source programming projects requires a different business model. I found food for thought in his discussion—trying to imagine how to apply the Linux development model to my own projects. Seems like such genius.

Torvalds strikes me as a sensible pragmatist about software and business, not a dogmatic ideologue. It is hard to read Just for Fun and not end up rooting for Linus and Linux. Even for the owner of a company works in .NET on Microsoft Windows.

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