Home > Linux > Interview with Linus Torvalds Interview with Linus Torvalds Submitted by Preston St. Pierre 2004-10-25 Linux 35 Comments Preston St. Pierre interviews Linus Torvalds for LinuxTimes. Linus talks about a lot of interesting things. About The Author Eugenia Loli Ex-programmer, ex-editor in chief at OSNews.com, now a visual artist/filmmaker. Follow me on Twitter @EugeniaLoli 35 Comments 2004-10-25 9:29 pm Don’t bother clicking the link … the site is slashdotted. 2004-10-25 9:32 pm Article text Linus Torvalds: ”Desktop Market has already started” Preston St. Pierre of Linux Times interviews Linus Torvalds. Linus Torvalds tells of some other programming venues than the Linux kernel, predicts a shadowy outcome for GNU/Hurd, gives some advice to anyone wanting to undertake a large software project and updates us on the latest in kernel development in this email interview by Preston St. Pierre. Preston: Your life has been dedicated for quite some time to the Linux kernel. If this project was no longer yours, what kind of project would you most like to take on next (games, user applications, another kernel, development tools, etc)? Linus Torvalds: I like being close to the hardware, and doing good visuals (ie games or GUI’s) is not my forte, so I’d probably work on development tools or similar. In fact, the only project I’ve actually spent some time on in the last year (apart from the kernel, of course) has been this source checker application that does some extended type-checking for the kernel. So very much a development tool. Preston: What is your favorite interpreted programming language, and why? Linus Torvalds: Heh. I don’t much do interpreters. The only one I end up using consciously (ie not part of somebody else’s scripts) end up being just the regular shell. It’s not that I dislike things like perl/python, it’s just that I tend to either just write C, or do _so_ simple things that shell works fine for me. I might admit to having a soft spot for basic, but I haven’t actually used it in closer to twenty years or so. But it was what I started with, so it will always be special Preston: Do you have any advice for people starting to undertake large open source projects? What have you learned by managing the Linux kernel? Linus Torvalds: Nobody should start to undertake a large project. You start with a small _trivial_ project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you’ll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage. Or worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision. So start small, and think about the details. Don’t think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn’t solve some fairly immediate need, it’s almost certainly over-designed. And don’t expect people to jump in and help you. That’s not how these things work. You need to get something half-way _useful_ first, and then others will say “hey, that _almost_ works for me”, and they’ll get involved in the project. And if there is anything I’ve learnt from Linux, it’s that projects have a life of their own, and you should _not_ try to enforce your “vision” too strongly on them. Most often you’re wrong anyway, and if you’re not flexible and willing to take input from others (and willing to change direction when it turned out your vision was flawed), you’ll never get anything good done. In other words, be willing to admit your mistakes, and don’t expect to get anywhere big in any kind of short timeframe. I’ve been doing Linux for thirteen years, and I expect to do it for quite some time still. If I had _expected_ to do something that big, I’d never have started. It started out small and insignificant, and that’s how I thought about it. Preston: From a user’s prospective, what improvements do you see the Linux kernel offering over Hurd? Do you think Hurd might eventually become as popular as Linux? Linus Torvalds: I think Hurd is dead. See above on why. It has a “big vision”, and people forgot about the details, and forgot about admitting when they went wrong. So the project stumbled, and _still_ didn’t bother to look down on the ground. But hey, I might be wrong. I haven’t actually followed Hurd in any detail, and maybe the project is more down-to-earth now, and more concerned about getting things working, and less about “design”. And less conceited. Preston: When do you think Linux will take over desktop market from Microsoft? Linus Torvalds: Oh, I think it’s started already, it’s just slow. You don’t realize just _how_ slow it is, unless you’ve been looking at Linux over the last ten years. People kind of expect it to suddenly be “good enough” and take off like a rocket, but that’s not how these things work. It gets better very gradually, and people get used to it very gradually. So I look back ten years, and think about how Linux was back then, and I have to chuckle a bit. The desktop of today is a bit better than it was a year ago, but you don’t _really_ see the differences unless you step back a lot more.. Preston: How do you like your new job @ OSDL as a full time Linux contributor? Linus Torvalds: It’s been working out quite well. I work from home, and OSDL provides some infrastructure that allows me to get my work done without having to worry about things. Which is just how I like it Preston: What’s the latest happening in the kernel development? Linus Torvalds: Oh, it’s been more of the same. Worrying about drivers, fixing interfaces to make it harder to write bugs by mistake, and just keeping up with new hardware and new ideas. The kernel is definitely maturing in the sense that a lot of the exciting really _new_ things are all in user space, and the kernel is sometimes called upon to make them easier to work with… 2004-10-25 9:49 pm Hit the nail on the head in regards to trying to force your vision down someone elses throat. RMS and the Linux Zealots could learn a few things from Linus. 2004-10-25 11:05 pm > Hit the nail on the head in regards to trying to force your vision down someone elses throat. RMS and the Linux Zealots could learn a few things from Linus. Totally. He somehow manages to always have a sense of humor in interviews. Saint Ignucious isn’t bad, but…. 2004-10-25 11:14 pm He should write a book of philosophy according to Linus, he sure has a good perspective… 2004-10-25 11:18 pm Our site is back up. It was slow going for a while but we never actually went down. 2004-10-25 11:29 pm > He should write a book of philosophy according to Linus, he sure has a good perspective… Well, there is his biography, “Just for Fun.” 2004-10-26 12:03 am Anybody know why Apple made the Mach microkernal work for OSX while Hurd could never get up on its feet? Following the Hurd project is almost like following a Monty Python skit. 2004-10-26 12:42 am The Hurd got the Mach microkernel working fine, then decided to change microkernels. Weird. 2004-10-26 12:42 am Maybe Apple made it work because they are a large company who can pay their employees to work on it. Hurd is in a less savory situation because there’s no company backing them, and honestly there isn’t much demand except to the people who want to drop the “linux” from “gnu/linux”. Regarding Smartpatrol’s reference to RMS. I think you are a little out of line. Stallman invented open source because he was cut out of projects that he personally worked on. His vision of a culture or at least a sub culture where all code is free is a noble vision. At the center of his vision is Gnu, the free implementation of Unix. Linux, for better or worse, has rendered that goal nearly unreachable. Since Linux is a robust, mature kernel, there isn’t a whole lot of demand for another free kernel in Hurd. As much as i you or i like linux, to RMS, linux is a threat as much as a blessing. Most people don’t refer to the platform as “gnu/linux” even though the gnu project is paramount to linux’s success. Worse yet, closed source software is becoming acceptable on the linux platform. RMS has spoken out against the binary Nvidia drivers and other commercial developers looking to port their software to the “gnu/linux” platform without opening the source. Say what you will about Stallman, he deserves our respect. His vision of a totally free platform will probably never be realized thanks to a software project released under his own license. RMS is a tragic hero, zealot or not. Mike 2004-10-26 1:29 am That was a well stated and interesting post. I agree that Mr. Stallman deserves respect and admiration for what he’s provided. However, you say that Linux has rendered the goal of a free implementation of Unix nearly unreachable? Hasn’t it actually helped to realize that goal? As you said, it’s a Unix-type kernel released under the same license that Stallman would have used. Didn’t Linux just get him there faster? Albeit, with someone else’s name attached. 2004-10-26 1:33 am As you look back in time, alot of development was left in it’s infancy, just to be rediscovered at a later time. 2004-10-26 1:56 am Keath, I think Mike is talking about the people who want only GNU software to run on a GNU OS. Linux has an explict statement that code using the kernel system calls is not linked. True GNU zealots would not have made that exception. Everything in user-space would have to be GNU. The binary modules drive them batty. If they could legally challenge them they would, but Nvidia (for example) has been clever enough that a GPL challenge wouldn’t win. The GNU zealots are the same people who seem to be in charge of Debian these days, who don’t believe that RFC documents are free enough because you’re not allowed to edit the RFC and pretend you didn’t. I think that we probably need extremists so that the middle ground is well defined, but I’m glad they’re not in charge. Anyway, nothing is stopping them from using GNU/Hurd if they like it. 2004-10-26 2:22 am Yes, i was talking about an only “GPL” (not “GNU” :-p) platform. And the problem is that many people involved with Linux and indeed Linus himself don’t see closed code as a threat to the software world. It’s just a difference of opinion. I personally think there is a place for closed source software in the world, but i don’t think its fair to call people who don’t Zealots. Maybe you’d have more sympathy for Stallman’s stance if you personally had worked on projects that later closed their source and shut you out of their development. Now more than ever, with America’s increasingly harsh laws preventing reverse engineering or any attempt at “circumventing copyright”, you’d think people would have more sympathy for someone who’s beliefs are so opposite of that. But instead the same people who decry the DMCA will slander the name of a man who has been dedicated to preventing that type of restriction on the proliferation of information. Mike 2004-10-26 5:22 am Anybody knows what distribution(s) kernel (or other big projects) developers use to develop, or is it a close guarded secret for obvious reasons? 2004-10-26 5:52 am I read that Linus uses SuSE. 2004-10-26 5:55 am For god’s sake, stop spreading misinformation, lies and innuendo. RMS runs GNU/Linux. He is happy about it and he know that the success of GNU rides and currently dependes on the success of Linux. He has stated himself that the Hurd is not usable for any real work and he has no problem with people using Linux. Stop trying to create artificial, unnecessary and inexistent divisions in our community by lying about what’s actually going on. Is Stallman passionate about free software? You bet. Does he have anything against Linux, other than having it called GNU/Linux when referring to the system rather than the kernel? Not a thing! I just couldn’t let this slide. 2004-10-26 6:20 am Fact: Hurd (or “GNU”) is still being developed. I don’t know the very definition of ‘dead’. If there’s some kind of development, is it still alive then? What if that’s not very active development, or if the project doesn’t seem to be able to catch up with competition, or if its 3rd party development? Almost no users, what does that say? Kind of users? “The Hurd got the Mach microkernel working fine, then decided to change microkernels. Weird.” They had reasons for this which you can find with Google or so. 2004-10-26 6:33 am I think the kernel devs use a variety of distros, just like any other big project. After all, all you really need to hack the kernel is a working text editor and a bootloader for testing… 2004-10-26 7:25 am I saw a picture of Linus with Mandrake boxes on his desk… But it must be old because it was something like 7.1 version. I think they use a bunch of different distro, depending on who pay them All major distrib must be represented. 2004-10-26 8:22 am Does anyone know if Alan Cox uses a Redhat distribution? 2004-10-26 9:17 am I read last year that he uses SuSE at home. Andrew 2004-10-26 9:20 am “Hit the nail on the head in regards to trying to force your vision down someone elses throat. RMS and the Linux Zealots could learn a few things from Linus.” It’s all in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (Dale Carnegie). This book probably should be compulsory reading on all computer science courses. 2004-10-26 9:23 am > The GNU zealots are the same people who seem to be in charge > of Debian these days, who don’t believe that RFC documents > are free enough because you’re not allowed to edit the RFC > and pretend you didn’t. False. 1) Debian says RFCs are not DFSG-free, not that they are not “free enough”. Currently Debian only provides DFSG-free software in main. 2) RFCs are not DFSG-free, but not because “you’re not allowed to edit the RFC and pretend you didn’t”, this is not required to be DFSG-free. Requiring name change, explicit modification notice, etc. are ok. What you say is particularly stupid because if it were true, GPL works wouldn’t be allowed in Debian. 2004-10-26 9:54 am > Stallman invented open source Never, never, ever say this to RMS. He’s for free software, not open source. There’s a big philosophical difference (to him, at least). 2004-10-26 11:46 am I’m still thankfull he made Emacs amongst other things. 2004-10-26 1:06 pm Yeah, you’re right about that. 2004-10-26 1:31 pm He probably dose same as we do…..hits distrowatch and downloads what ever is interesting to him at the moment. Besides Linus could install linux on a toaster so the distro he uses is arbitrary. -nX 2004-10-26 2:37 pm I believe the biggest problem is not closed source software (which can be fine, like, say, Photoshop), but closed formats. Can you imagine what the field of electrical engineering would be like if there weren’t some mandatory standards regulated by the goverments for the convinience and safety of the public? Such things do not exist in the software world. Some such things that would be nice to have: – ONE BLOODY DOCUMENT FORMAT (a ala Doc, RTF etc) that is Public Domain, and ALL comercial word processors should MANDATORILY support, ie. to be able to export and read. – ONE public domain Filesystem standard that all operating systems should provide mount/read/write/etc access to. It doesn’t matter if MS uses NTFS and Apple HFS+, just that they should both additionaly support this standard. Free reference implementations and compliance tests should also be provided. No software in the above categories should be sold to a goverment if it did not had this support. Vendors can provide and maintain their more *advanced* formats, even have them as defaults (we don’t want to hurt innovation), AS LONG AS they support those mandatory formats. 2004-10-26 3:10 pm No point in legislating the existence of open formats – the market has dictated some standards, and everyone supports them. ONE BLOODY DOCUMENT FORMAT (a ala Doc, RTF etc) that is Public Domain, and ALL comercial word processors should MANDATORILY support, ie. to be able to export and read. RTF is one. MSWrite, MSOffice, OOo, Abi etc. all support it. Arguably, .doc (as long as it has only basic formatting, no revision control, and no vba) is another. ONE public domain Filesystem standard that all operating systems should provide mount/read/write/etc access to. FAT16 and FAT32. Perhaps you meant “one public filesystem that doesn’t totally suck” … 2004-10-26 4:05 pm I’m not saying that Stallman is against linux. But Linus and much of the “linux” community are not on the same page as RMS. People have different views on the morality of closed code. Some people will develop open source, but will run closed programs if they are the only option, some will only develop and run closed programs, and some will only run open software and will only develop open software. I think its safe to say that RMS falls into the latter. But based on RMS’ fairly recent writings i think it’s clear that he is noticing a threat to the freedom of linux that is coming from people who are willing to tolerate closed code if it is the only option. I don’t think it’s unfair to conclude that Mr. Stallman would not continue using gnu/Linux if it continues down the path of tolerating propritary applications. If he is perfectly fine with linux, then why is Hurd still being developed? 2004-10-26 4:09 pm “Preston: When do you think Linux will take over desktop market from Microsoft? Linus Torvalds: Oh, I think it’s started already, it’s just slow.” I hope he turns out to be wrong on this one. I rather enjoy seeing Windows being the king in the OS world. If anything were to take over Windows, I would prefer it to be Mac OS. 2004-10-26 4:29 pm // Vendors can provide and maintain their more *advanced* formats, even have them as defaults (we don’t want to hurt innovation), AS LONG AS they support those mandatory formats // ehm, if Vendors are allowed to keep their proprietary formats, i think users wouldnt be encouraged to convert all their docs to the open format to me it seems that users dont throw away their old docs all of a sudden, but add them to archives, and these archives to larger ones: and document warehouses would remain a potential source of interoperability issues, if they are created in closed formats by proprietary applications until these remain not available on all platforms and not 100% compatible to AND from the ones avavilable Thus, where’s the point of a mandatory open format whose aim would be to foster interoperability and document recycle? Different would be in the case, this open format is mandated to be not only supported, but also the MAIN one on all applications, so that vendors are compelled to innovate and add “value for money” in other respects (interface, ease of use, side utilities, etc) 2004-10-26 5:44 pm Level heads win the day. In my opinion linus takes the proper approach to OSS and free software and lends credit to the movement. RMS is the ever antagonist that for all outward appearances seems a little off and radical. Most resonable people do not react well to new or at least new to them ideas when presentented in the manner that RMS likes to do, no matter how benificial or superior the idea may be. In a perfect world someone would put RMS back into his closet and let people like linus be spokes persons for OSS. 2004-10-27 12:53 am Free software, Free software not Open software. Just to nitpick.