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Giving It All Away

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds wrote a computer operating system in college and gave millions of copies away. Now that he has changed the world of computing and nicked the empire of Bill Gates, Linus has come to Silicon Valley to see what else he can shake up.

By Michael Learmonth

Photo by Christopher Gardner



RELIGIOUSLY, MEN LIKE Jim McPherson, Chuck Ritter and Larry Colen meet each month in the back of a Carl's Jr. at First and Trimble. Over onion rings and Superstar burgers, balding mainframe-era engineers and ponytailed Web jocks pay homage to a lean piece of free software code that controls millions of computers. It is a quiet rebellion against a single company's ownership of the instructions that govern the management of information in American businesses.

McPherson, an engineer at Raytheon; Ritter, a network administrator at a county hospital; Colen, who tests microprocessors for the multinational Schlumberger corporation; and 20 other men place orders at the front counter, where data is transmitted at the speed of light to the fry cooks behind the shake machine. Then, holding plastic table tents with unique routing numbers that regulate the flow of beef burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches to their stations, they file into the back room with drawn shades, small tables and a soda fountain that advertises free refills in neon lights.

"Where's Linus?" someone asks. The room fills with groans and laughter.

After three months of anticipation, it has become an insider's joke. Linus Torvalds, the Helsinki prodigy who at age 22 wrote Linux, the computer operating system that lured these two dozen men out of their homes and offices on a weeknight, has moved to the world's technology Mecca to take his first real job.

"Torvalds said he would make it one of these days," says Dan Kionka, leader of the Silicon Valley Computer Society Linux Users Special Interest Group. When the 27-year-old Finn will appear is anyone's guess.

Like a charm school for untamed silicon, operating systems civilize a computer's basic behavior and teach it how to interact with different applications and peripherals. Today, 80 percent of the world's computers run on one of several flavors of operating software sold by the Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft corporation.

Since he released the first versions of Linux on the Internet in 1991, Linus Torvalds has led an ad-hoc international team of computer professionals bent on wresting control of the operating instructions from the hands of companies that make billions of dollars by selling software preinstalled on new computers, and in plastic-wrapped boxes with colorful pictures.

Linux, on the other hand, is free. By some estimates, it has crept into the processors of as many as 8 million computers worldwide, and each year the number grows. In the past six years it has pushed UNIX, Windows NT and other commercial operating systems off the desktops of engineers, scientists, students and hackers.

"I use Linux at home because it's free and at work because it works better," pipes up one user, looking up from his tray piled high with fast-food wrappers.

"Everything that I need to do works better under Linux," Colen testifies.

Linus Torvalds has not come to Silicon Valley to cash in on his invention. In truth, he can't. Six years ago he decided to make his work product available to anyone who wants it for free.

Like other now legendary microcomputer programmers--Woz, Andreesen, Jerry Yang--his work has touched millions. Unlike them, he did not become a decamillionaire in his 20s, distracted by rich men's indulgences, portfolio managers or his portrait on the covers of magazines at 7-11. Someday, that could change. But for now, the Scandinavian transplant remains the genuine article, an uncorrupted cult hero living amid ground-zero Silicon Valley expressways, Lexus dealerships and bedroom linen superstores.

By giving it all away, Torvalds started a niche industry that has spawned a few millionaires and produced currents strong enough to be felt aboard the Microsoft Titanic, even if his handiwork is not exactly an iceberg in its path. One day, the Linux way of doing business--free, Internet-based software distribution as an alternative to the overpriced products of monopolies--could recast the greedy landscape of the still young information age. For now, though, Linus has fallen down the rabbit hole and is unpacking his things.

WHEN I FIRST TELEPHONE Linus at his office, he is friendly but firm. Santa Clara­based Transmeta, his employer, wants his work kept top secret. A volley of voicemail and email produces an agreement with Transmeta management on what company information can be shared with readers. Here it is: "Linus Torvalds works for Transmeta. Transmeta is a corporation located in Santa Clara."

Transmeta sits on the ground floor of a generic office park in the shadow of Great America, just two exits from the Carl's Jr. off the Bayshore Freeway.

I ring the bell. Linus greets me at the charcoal-windowed door. He is considered something of a sex symbol in certain corners of the Web. The shirtless picture posted at www.geekchic.com led me to expect a 6-foot Nordic-type, like the ones that tromp around the Grand Canyon in August in white socks and sandals.

I was right on the white socks and sandals--Birkenstocks to be precise--but that's about it. Linus stands about 5 foot 8 with medium-length wispy blonde hair, round, wire-rimmed glasses and smallish blue eyes. He has a man's stature and a boy's face, with unlined white skin and rosy cheeks. Inside his stark office, bereft of family pictures or Dilbert cartoons, hangs an erasable marker board with purple scratchings. A few trade newsletters sit on his L-shaped desk, alongside a computer with a can of Spam atop the monitor--the only visible frivolous distraction. Not a Transmeta trade secret, Linus assures, but an award passed around to the last computer to crash the network.

We go to lunch, Silicon Valley­style, which means: get in the car, drive to another parking lot, hit the ATM and drive to a third parking lot at a restaurant. Dressed in blue jeans and a white Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt and wearing a small shoulder bag, Linus is mastering Silicon Valley computer-jock style. He's still trying to get used to the turning radius of the Pontiac Grand Am he bought soon after arriving in January. It's forest green, with a flat fiberglass snout resembling that of a bottom-feeding fish, and has a stuffed animal suction-cupped to the rear window. We pull a three-pointer at the ATM.

"In Finland, everyone drives small, standard-shift cars," he says. But the full-size rental he got when he arrived was an automatic. He liked it. He looked at some Toyotas and Nissans with automatic transmissions but decided "only American cars had enough power."

We stop in at a small Chinese buffet. Linus orders beef over rice.

Six years into his reign as leader of the international Linux following, Linus says he enjoys the fame he has "in certain circles." But most computer guys merely know Linus as a name or maybe an email address. Indeed, while we're walking around a Sunnyvale strip mall, none of the other techies look up from their lunches. Linux has, however, spawned hundreds of books and at least one monthly magazine, the Linux Journal, whose editor is still trying to get Torvalds to pose for its cover.

The extent of Linus' fame is apparent at events like the UNIX convention that took place last January in Anaheim. James Gosling, inventor of Java, gave the keynote address, but when it came time for Linus to present his talk on the future of UNIX, the speech had to be moved to a different venue to accommodate the crowd.

"During normal life, small girls do not come up to me and throw their underwear at me or anything like that," he deadpans in precise, faintly accented English. "I think my wife would be slightly unhappy if that started to happen."

Linus has a stealthy ego about him. Most of the time it flies undetected under a self-effacing cover and an impulse to deflect credit to others. But just as matter-of-factly as he explains how small his invention is compared to the mountain of Linux development others have done since, he says without self-consciousness: "I am a good programmer," and "You have to be a little crazy to be the best in the world at something."

In person, Linus shows none of the communication deficits sometimes attributed to a life spent interacting largely with a machine. He is, most notably, adept at explaining without condescension. He also comes off as a genuinely nice guy.

"I think that is part of what has kept the Linux community together," says Peter Anvin, a friend and co-worker who helped lure Linus to Transmeta. "The Linux community has been described as a benevolent dictatorship. But it doesn't work if people don't like the dictator."

HE TELLS ME THE STORY of Linux beginning in 1991. Linus was a student in the computer science department at the University of Helsinki when he, like many programmers, fell in love with UNIX and wanted to run it on his home computer. UNIX is a computer operating system developed over decades, starting in the late '60s, by the Defense Department, IBM, AT&T, UC-Berkeley and MIT. From it evolved a standard language that allows computers to communicate and makes the Internet, among other things, possible.

Linus wanted to run UNIX at home, but at the time the software cost $5,000, and it ran only on $10,000 workstations.

He began to work on his own UNIX clone, one that would bring all the hacking power of UNIX to a desktop PC. By early 1991, Linus had created a kernel--the heart of the operating system that works directly with the processor. He called it "Freax," a play on "free UNIX" or hacker "freaks," but when he tried to post it to the Web, the FTP site manager didn't like the implication. He named the FTP site "Linux," after the label Linus had put there for his personal use.

"I never wanted to use that name because I felt, OK, that's a little too egotistical," he remembers. "The name stuck, and right now I'm very happy I didn't call it 'Freax.' "

In October 1991, Linus announced the release of Linux .02, the first functional Linux operating system. Linus predicted the bare-bones code would appeal to shade-tree programmers who were then using a UNIX clone called Minix to tinker with their Intels.

"Do you pine for the nice days of Minix 1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers?" Linux queried in a Minix newsgroup. "Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on an OS you can modify for your needs?"

The post reads like a taunt: Come and get it if you're man enough.

He patented Linux under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License, which made it free and available and prevented anyone from distributing it without the source code.

Back then, in 1991, UNIX couldn't run on PCs. Linux made an impact at universities, where they were teaching UNIX and using Minix.

Linux's beauty is that it can do anything UNIX can do--on a $1,000 desktop PC. What's more, anyone can download it off the Internet for programming or hacking or to convert a desktop PC into a Web server.

His first surprise came when he got emails from five other people claiming to be running their PCs on Linux. "The source code got some people really excited," says Linus. "A lot of people who used it were people who wanted to play with it." Then Linus got emails from 100 other new Linux users. "After that," he says, "I stopped being surprised."

What happened next was an unprecedented worldwide virtual collaboration. Linus distributed the Linux kernel with source code, and programmers all over the world picked it up and ran with it. Soon Linus was getting "patches"--small dollops of programming to improve the kernel--from all over the world. Programmers exchanged lines of code, reported bugs and ported the kernel to other computer platforms. Universities began to use Linux to teach programming courses, and numerous businesses began running Linux on their server computers.

But even as the community of Linux users and programmers grew, it remained deferential to its leader. "I've always stayed close to the kernel," he says. "I am the person who makes all new releases and puts out new versions on the Net."

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Linux online.

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LINUS' APARTMENT, OFF the Lawrence Expressway three miles from Transmeta, is decorated sparsely with Scandinavian precision. Three days earlier, the space was crammed with 30 cubic meters of moving boxes that arrived from Helsinki. Today, black-jacketed science fiction novels line the walls, trinkets are arranged carefully on shelves and two Finnish nature scenes hang on the dining room wall.

Linus apologizes for not having a couch. His wife, Tove (pronounced Too-veh), takes me to see Patricia, their 4-month-old daughter. They waited until the baby was born to come to the United States. "People said we were crazy not to have the baby born here," Linus says. "We never really considered it. Medicine in Finland is so much better." For the birth, the couple had a private room at a Helsinki hospital for three days for about $50.

The Torvalds' sparsely furnished apartment provides few signs of the information media explosion. A Terry Brooks novel lies open in the bedroom along with a book on infants, in Finnish. A small radio rests on the floor outside the kitchen, but there's no television. Linus says he hasn't looked at a newspaper in two months.

He boots the $20,000-plus Digital Equipment Alpha 600 that Transmeta provided so he could work at home. He doesn't know how much it cost and doesn't want to know. On the computer's CPU is a sticker mocking Intel that reads "Linux Inside."

Lines of white code flash by on the massive screen, reflecting off his glasses. Linus rarely plays games, but to demonstrate Linux's capabilities, he opens Quake. Soon the demo is running, and a shotgun-toting vigilante is laying waste to the game's cyber-monsters. Then he starts Microsoft Word for Windows and Netscape, all on Linux.

We do an Altavista search for Linus' name and get more than 6,000 references. By comparison, the president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, shows 2,000 references. I know I'm at least the second reporter for whom Linus has performed this trick.

Then he starts a program that shows a 20-sided icosahedron bouncing around a frame. Quake slows down a little. "This is CPU-intensive because there are so many calculations," he says.

Finally, he says, there is one more program he wants me to see. It's called XBill, and it was written by a Linux enthusiast. It opens with computers scattered across the screen. The screens of the computer icons contain the logos of operating systems from Sun, SGI, Next, Solaris and Red Hat, which sells commercial Linux. Little cartoon depictions of Bill Gates shuffle on the screen, carrying boxes with the four-square Windows logo. If Bill gets to a computer, he takes the operating system off and puts Windows on--it has been taken over by the "dark side." The object of the game is to move the little hand around the screen and pimp-slap Bill's grinning face before he can get to a computer. The game is over when Bill has taken over all the computers. Then the Windows machines turn into toasters. "Your computer is toast," he says.

IN 1981, LINUS WAS A toothy, pale-skinned kid with a blond cowlick living in a suburb of Helsinki, where the weather is cold year-round, save for a few 70-degree weeks in the summer. That year, 11-year-old Linus inherited a Commodore Vic-20 from his grandfather, a professor of statistics at the local university.

As the cathode ray tube's blue light cast a glow on his face, he sat in his bedroom, books lining the wall from floor to ceiling. Ivanhoe, Treasure Island, Robin Hood and all the Tarzan books. On a shelf: a plastic model of the Wasa, a Swedish ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The Wasa, painted in meticulous detail and outfitted with working sails and rigging, took months to finish.

When the first computer arrived, the other projects fell by the wayside. Long past his bedtime, small fingers tapped the dark brown keys of the Vic-20 keyboard. His first achievement on the Vic-20 was the simplest computer program possible: a two-line "GOTO" program in Basic. Once he tried to impress his little sister, Sara, by programming the Commodore to repeat "Sara is the best."

Next he tapped out his first full-fledged video game written in machine code, in which a submarine sails through a moving underwater tunnel, remaining stationary as the operator controls its vertical movement. The craft's captain must stay alive by dodging the "large nasty fish" in the tunnel. As the game progresses, the tunnel constricts. This amused Linus for hours in his bedroom. He stored the program on an audiocassette and took it to school to play with friends.

In hindsight, Linus believes starting on a very simple computer gave him an advantage that today's whiz kids don't have. "Modern PCs are much more complex," he explains. "No kid sitting in front of a Pentium could ever understand all its parts thoroughly."

Linus bought his third computer, a 386 PC, as a student at the University of Helsinki in 1991. That was when he began to write his own operating system. At the time, he still lived at home; the more sophisticated his skills got, the less his family understood what was taking shape in the blue light in the bedroom.

"I'd stand and look at the machine doing several things at the same time, none of which I could understand, nodding politely as he'd explain what was so great about what he'd accomplished," says his sister, Sara, now a 26-year-old student at the University of Helsinki. "But with Linus tying up the phone line with his modem, his work on Linux meant mainly that nobody could call us."

The Torvalds are still trying to comprehend the fame that came to the little boy who couldn't seem to get enough of his Commodore.

Says Sara: "I still have a hard time realizing that to other people Linus isn't just Linus, but a--I balk at the word--genius."

ONE BY ONE, THE LINUX users-group members introduce themselves. Dan Kionka allows each member present to ask a single question of the group. "How do I reset my clock?" someone asks. A 10-minute discussion ensues. Everyone, it seems, has a different angle on the solution. Someone suggests a reboot. To which another replies, "One of my things is not to reboot, unless Cupertino power does it for me."

But the members of the users group do seem to have consensus on one thing. And Frank Peter, a middle-aged man in blue slacks and blue-striped oxford cloth, decides to stir the pot.

"Are we interested in Linux because it's cheap UNIX or because it's technically superior?" he asks.

A bevy of Linux devotees comes to its defense. Some cite the growing number of applications written for Linux. "Linux doesn't crash like Windows," offers Larry Colen, the Schlumberger test engineer.

Then Peter throws down the gauntlet.

"Tell me one thing Linux can do that Windows NT can't," he needles, anticipating an eruption with a half-smile.

No one answers the challenge directly. But almost everyone's got something to say about Microsoft.

"In my opinion," replies Chuck Ritter, "what Microsoft essentially does is make the OS simple by handcuffing it. You want something powerful? With Microsoft, you are stuck with what they say you can do."

This is the essence of the argument. Operating systems made by Microsoft are "closed systems." They do not share source code, and users must be content to do whatever the creators in Redmond intended for them to do. To them, the operating system as most users know it--the windows or the happy smiling screen--is a thin veneer that allows the programming-ignorant to productively use computers. Linux, like UNIX, is an "open system," in that the source code is available to anyone who wants to alter or customize it. For most of us, this would be hopelessly time-consuming and complex. For Linux users, it's freedom.

"If the world was as Microsoft wanted it, there would be no books," says Rafael Skodlar. "They would all be comic strips."

A SMILE SPREADS across Linus' thin lips when he talks about the entrepreneurs who have made themselves rich off Linux. The Linux resellers, like Red Hat, Solaris, Caldera and Workstation Solutions, who sold 40,000 units in one month in 1995, collectively gasped when Linus announced he was leaving the University of Helsinki--for Silicon Valley, no less. He would have to take sides, they thought, once he left the ivory tower, as Marc Andreesen did when he left school to create a commercial version of the freeware browser Mosaic for the company that came to be known as Netscape, or when grad students Jerry Yang and David Filo of Yahoo! fame slid their Internet bookmark files off of Stanford University's Akebono server, lubricated by a cool million.

"There were some corruptive offers," Linus says. But going commercial, he says, is no longer an option.

"Even though I am the leader of the pack, I could not take that road, even if I wanted to," he says.

Word of a new company running Linux spreads like brushfire. Companies as diverse as Yahoo!, Boeing and the Virginia Power Company run Linux. Phil Hughes, publisher of Linux Journal, passed on rumors that Hewlett-Packard is porting Linux to its hardware and that IBM is using Linux at its porting center in Austin.

"You begin to realize you have a development team that is bigger than anything Microsoft could pay for," says Bob Young, president of Red Hat. "Linux users say their machines may go down once a year. Compare that with admins trying to keep Windows NT going. It's not that [Linux] is better-engineered; it's that there are so many more people working on it, and it is better tested."

The industry research firm Datapro named Linux the second most popular Web server OS, behind Sun Microsystems. At Linux Journal, Hughes has a Web server running Linux on a 486 that gets 150,000 hits and transfers from 800 megabytes to a gigabyte of information daily. This, after they thought that the ancient 486 hardware would max out at 10,000 hits. "Well," Hughes says, "we haven't upgraded the hardware yet."

At a Linux conference in Bellevue, Wash., Hughes says he saw more than a few Microsoft badges. "I don't think Bill Gates is scared yet," says Hughes, "but we do know there are plenty of people at Microsoft running Linux at home."

Yet some in the Linux industry think Microsoft has reason to be concerned. The software giant makes $2 billion a year selling its operating systems. Young thinks the entire operating system market could shrink to $200 million if Linux makes the jump from workstations to the desktop. The only drawback is software, but more and more of it is released for Linux every year. Linux supports Java, and Corel has ported its popular illustration software and WordPerfect 6 to run native on Linux. Using a tool called WABI, Linux users can run Windows 3.1 on their desktop, along with all of its popular word-processing and spreadsheet software.

ON THE FUTURE OF LINUX, Red Hat president Bob Young forecasts two possible scenarios. In the first, which he thinks is five years away, Linux dominates scientific and technical applications and becomes the preferred OS for Web servers and workstations. Its market share grows as computer science students graduate from universities where Linux has 100 percent "mind share." Because of its cost and performance advantages, it becomes the standard OS for the computers behind the desktop computers.

The second scenario is far more dramatic. As the number of Linux users grows, Microsoft and other software developers acknowledge the growing market and start writing software for it. Soon, Linux's stark cost and performance advantages move it into the desktop market. Then, perhaps in 10 years, Microsoft loses control of the operating system.

"Microsoft has a vested interest in seeing that free software does not challenge the core operating system," Young says. But, he says, given their rate of growth and diversification, in 10 years "they may no longer care."

The second scenario has played out more than once in the minds that meet at Carl's Jr. "I honestly think Linux is about to achieve critical mass," Colen says. By "critical mass" he means the number of Linux users that will make Bill Gates take notice. "More and more companies, when they come out with hardware, they'll write the Linux driver. A lot of people run Windows because they want to have certain applications. This is going to change."

LINUS LEANS OVER A POOL table's worn green felt, his chin almost touching the cue as he gazes down its shaft. He was a snooker player in Finland; I teach him American billiards rules, and he catches on quickly, working the angles and getting a few lucky drops. At the end of the game, he leaves me with two balls on the table. Twice. "This is much more like snooker than I thought," he gloats.

Linus swears there was no master plan to become the world's most adulated programmer--just a string of planets that lined up in the right place at the right time. Where would Linus be today if, say, he had chosen to write the first version of Linux for the 286 chip, as some colleagues at the University of Helsinki urged him to do? What if he had written Linux for workstations and not desktop PCs? And what if the release of Linux .01 in 1991 hadn't coincided with the rise of the Internet and CD-ROMs--both inexpensive means of distributing the Linux OS?

"I happened to really hit on the right combination by mistake," he admits. It just so happened that Linus wanted a new operating system when a lot of other people wanted one, too. The pattern is common. Steve Wozniak just wanted a computer to show off to his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. Yang and Filo were simply managing their lists of cool Web sites. And a college class in the Midwest developed the graphical Web browser to conveniently access files on university computers.

In all cases, a lot of other people wanted something else. Linux users sought UNIX for their home computers, to be sure, but they also needed a project leader--one with pure enough intentions and an ego sufficiently under control so he could be trusted.

"He amazed me," says Hughes, publisher of the Linux Journal. "He's very low on the ego end. It snowballed because of his attitude and because he was willing to accept what others wanted. At the time, here was a 24-year-old managing an effort that was amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a year in this market. I'm independently wealthy because of him."

For Linus, staying "pure" by having no commercial interest in the success or failure of Linux is crucial to the continued success of the project, or at least his leadership of it. "What I want is for people to trust me, and obviously part of that is the image that I am not corrupted," he says. "In order for Linux to succeed, there has to be someone to make the judgment of what's correct. In some sense I am the boss over Linux developers, and they don't want me to be the snake that bites them."

The anarchist spirit runs deep in the Linux community. The Cult of Linus (just ask the guys at Carl's Jr) resents that the genius of the programmer has been subverted to the genius of the marketing department. The rewards go not to the best programmer, but to the company that asks the ignorant masses, "Where do you want to go today?" By staying "pure," Linus represents the antithesis of this, and it has earned him adulation money just can't buy.

Ironically, Linus thinks Microsoft's current dominance over the desktop is boosting Linux. "It is going to happen anyway because having one company control everything is an unstable situation," he says. "Smaller companies seem to be porting to Linux and UNIX partly to avoid the Microsoft total domination. Companies that produce applications and port them to many operating systems [including Linux] are going to have an advantage. Look at Netscape."

As for the immediate future, Linus wants to continue to lead the effort to keep Linux in the fray. Already the Linux phenomenon has exceeded his wildest imagination. And it continues to be picked up, carried and passed on.

"Where do you think it will go?" I ask.

Linus looks off and considers the possibilities. He is a man with nothing to lose and plenty of time in Wonderland to mull the advice of a Caterpillar.

He looks back and shrugs, "I really have no idea."

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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