Torvalds, Linus

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Torvalds, Linus

Transmeta Corporation


Software engineer Linus Torvalds is the creator of the Linux operating system, a program that by the late 1990s was getting attention as a potential competitor to the powerful Microsoft Windows, which runs about 85 percent of the world's computers. This would be intriguing enough if Torvalds was a software guru out to topple Microsoft as a leader in this market, but astonishingly, after cobbling together the project on his own time for his own use as a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, the Finnish programmer posted the system and all its code (the set of instructions used to create it) on the Internet, free to anyone who wanted it. His motivating factor, then, was not to earn money from a superior product but just simply to build a better quality, more reliable operating system. "People have grown used to thinking of computers as unreliable, and it doesn't have to be that way," Torvalds told Amy Harmon in the New York Times Magazine. "I don't mind Microsoft making money. I mind them having a bad operating system." Though he is one of the most popular icons among the computer–savvy, Torvalds has not made a cent from his creation. However, Linux companies did give Torvalds stock options, much of which he sold during the technology boom in the late 1990s–early 2000. His reputation also earned him a job at Transmeta, a secretive start–up firm in Santa Clara in 1997. The company is partially financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and is reportedly involved in chip design or operating systems.

Personal Life

Torvalds is married to his wife, Tove, who was the reigning karate champion of Finland for six years. They have three daughters and live in a tract house in Santa Clara, California, which is filled with stuffed penguins—the mascot of Linux, because Torvalds finds them friendly and sympathetic. He and his family left Finland so he could accept the six–figure salary in Silicon Valley's Transmeta. Torvalds' hobbies include reading and playing snooker. He was named Person of the Year by PC Magazine in 1999.

He was born in about 1970 and named after physicist Linus Pauling as well as the intellectual Peanuts comic character. He grew up in Helsinki in a family of journalists but his grandfather, Leo Toerngvist, had the biggest influence on him. He was a mathematician and statistics professor at the University of Helsinki who bought one of the first personal computers in order to use it as a programmable calculator. Enlisting his grandson to help out with the Commodore VIC–20, Toerngvist taught Torvalds the basics of writing programs. Before he had reached his teen years, Torvalds was devoting most of his time to writing code for computer games. "I liked the challenge of making a computer do what you wanted it to," he mentioned to Leslie Helm in the Los Angeles Times. He also admitted, "I was a geek." His mother, Mikke, recalled in, "I suppose I have already answered the question of what Linus was like as a son: easy to raise. As Sara [Linus' sister] and I used to say, just give Linus a spare closet with a good computer in it, feed him some dry pasta, and he will be perfectly happy."

As a computer science student at Finland's University of Helsinki in 1991, 21–year–old Torvalds felt he needed a better operating system to perform his work. Microsoft's MS–DOS was simply not technologically up to snuff, but as a poor undergraduate, Torvalds could not afford to spend the $6,000 to $9,000 for the more advanced Unix system, which runs large mainframes in the corporate and academic arenas. So he figured he would write his own version. As Torvalds put it to Elizabeth Simnacher in the Dallas Morning News, "Reliability was an issue, but the systems were very messy. There was essentially no philosophy. They didn't fit my notion of what an operating system should be." He explained further, "When you don't have some kind of a plan, the end result is such that nobody can understand how it works and there aren't any clear rules about how to use it."

Career Details

Torvalds was dedicated to his pursuit. "Forget about dating! Forget about hobbies! Forget about life!" he exclaimed to Janice Maloney in Time. "We are talking about a guy who sat, ate, and slept in front of the computer." When he mentioned his project to an Internet discussion group, one person offered him some space on a university computer to post the program. He posted first the raw version with the message: "Are you without a nice program and just dying to cut your teeth on an [operating system] you can try to modify for your own needs? Then this post might be just for you." One of the members dubbed the program "Linux," after its original creator and the program he based it on, Unix. The decision to unleash the Linux program for free over the Internet was astounding enough, but Torvalds went a step further when he also posted the source code so that other programmers could play with the version on their own, making modifications at will. This is what is known in the industry as open source software (OSS), a movement that is gaining steam even in the commercial sector because of the fact that more minds being applied to the product will yield superior programs. Sure enough, a few people soon downloaded and puttered around with the code and e–mailed modifications to Torvalds. "When I released Linux, I thought maybe one other person would be interested in it," Torvalds related to Harmon.

Before long, the handful of Linux enthusiasts grew to somewhere between 100 and 200, and by 1994 Torvalds felt it could be considered a complete operating system. At this point about 100,000 people had downloaded it and were running it on personal computers. To keep it free, Torvalds had used the GNU General Public License, a licensing system developed by Richard Stallman, a pioneer in the free software movement, which required anyone who modified the program to offer their code at no charge to anyone else who wanted it. Stallman dubbed this a "copyleft," instead of a copyright, license, in homage to its liberal philosophy.

By 1998 seven to eight million users were running Linux. A following of a few million converts to this renegade system was still along way from the roughly 250 million using Windows, but Linux won over more than just a loose–knit collection of disgruntled techno–geeks. Linux became the operating system preferred by people running Internet servers, the computers that route traffic on the World Wide Web and provide web sites to users. Smaller servers on local area networks began using it, too, and it started to seep into businesses as computer network administrators got word of it and its reliable nature. Soon some big players had begun installing Linux, helping transform it from an underground, cultish product for the techno–elite to one with a promising future for the masses.

In April of 1998 Linux was installed on 68 personal computers combined together into a "supercomputer" at Los Alamos National Laboratory in order to run a program to simulate atomic shock waves. In addition, Linux was installed on machines at NASA, the United States Postal Service, and in administrative offices for the U.S. Navy and the Boeing Company and is also the operating system that runs computers at Digital Domain, a special effects firm hired for the film Titanic. The telecommunications giant Southwestern Bell also installed Linux and found that it helped decrease their costs because of its stability—when a network goes down, productivity is stalled, and thus profits are chipped away. Whereas most Windows NT users find they need to reboot their systems at least weekly or more, Linux users are finding that their computers can run for months without a reboot.

Linux still has a ways to go before it will be competitive with Microsoft or Unix. Some naysayers counter that Linux is difficult to install and use and that the only means of technical support is by time–consuming communications with other users via the Internet. A solution to the support dilemma came along when companies like Red Hat and others offered their own version of Linux and accompanying technical support for $50, thus providing a more efficient way to obtain answers. This made the system more commercially viable. In 1996 a version of Linux released by Red Hat Software won the award for best desktop computer operating system from InfoWorld, a trade magazine. Red Hat also began working on a graphic interface it dubbed GNOME to make it more user–friendly.

Chronology: Linus Torvalds

1970: Born.

1991: Created the kernel of operating system that would become Linux.

1994: Linux completed as an operating system with some 200 users.

1996: Linux version won award for best desktop computer operating system from InfoWorld magazine.

1997: Began working at Transmeta.

1998: Linux is run by seven to eight million users.

1998: Linux installed by NASA, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Navy, and Boeing Company, among others.

1999: Dell computers began selling a line of computers running Linux.

2000: Transmeta announced the creation of a line of super–efficient chips for portable computers and hand–held devices named Crusoe.

2001: Published the autobiography Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary.

The future for Linux seemed sealed when technology behemoths Netscape and Intel each purchased a stake in the tiny, North Carolina–based Red Hat in late 1998. Intel vice president Sean Maloney said at the time, "The investment in Linux is clearly a reflection of (its) growing importance and influence in the business community," according to an article by Karlin Lillington in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch. In April of 1999 Dell computers purchased an interest in Red Hat as well, and announced it would start selling a line of computers running Linux. Meanwhile, Microsoft Corporation president Steve Ballmer indicated that his firm considered Linux a threat and hinted that Microsoft may even consider eventually making available some of its code for Windows.

Although Linux was sprung from hacker origins (and it shows in its lack of slick graphic design), its more reliable nature and its growing accessibility are helping it gain a wider range of fans, including many businesses and governmental bodies. Many still think it has a while before it becomes a serious contender, especially since it cannot run many of the more popular desktop software programs yet that will be necessary to make it appealing to home users. However, more and more big–name firms are supporting its growth by offering Linux on systems and investing in companies that are selling their versions of Linux, and Torvalds holds the hope that someday it will be a viable option to Windows. In April 2000, hosted an online question and answer session with Torvalds about the future of Linux. Torvalds further expanded on the origins of Linux and its creator in his 2001 autobiography Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary.

As well as rivaling Microsoft, Torvalds' work may pose a challenge to another technological institution: Intel. In 2000, Transmeta, the company Torvalds joined in 1997, came out with a line of super–efficient chips for portable computers and hand–held devices named Crusoe after Robinson Crusoe. The chips run virtually all the same programs as the Intel Pentium III chips but don't need as much power, allowing laptop computer users to run them all day without recharging, instead of only a few hours. The chips, which would set the bar high for Intel if they worked as promised, were due on the market in mid–2000. One reason Torvalds took the job at Transmeta, however, was that it allowed him to continue his ongoing work on Linux.

Social and Economic Impact

With mottos like "Do unto others what you would like others to do unto you. And have fun doing it" and "Greed is never good," Torvalds is a unique personality in the computer world where one of its own, Bill Gates, reigns as the richest entrepreneur in the country. His single–minded devotion and honest attempt at creating a better operating system for the benefit of all prompted his decision to open the source code and let others around the world work on Linux for the benefit of the program itself, not for his own personal gain. Linux has made Torvalds a hero among the technically savvy. In 1998, Time noted, "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 operation. Journalists love Linux—and its Finnish eponym—because his is a story in the classic David and Goliath mold."

Torvalds, however, is quick to point out that he only supplied a "kernel" of the program. By opening the source code, users around the globe continue to work on it on a volunteer basis, fixing any bugs that hamper its performance and making enhancements as they wish, as long as they post their code back to the community of users for perusal. Thus, its users claim, Linux runs faster and is more stable than other operating systems, specifically Microsoft Windows NT for networks (the program is far more popular on computer servers than on individual machines) and boasts a roster of clients, which include Fortune 500 companies and NASA. Despite the fact that the system lacks a user–friendly graphical interface and the code remains free, some companies are finding ways to make a profit off it. Red Hat Software, for example, charges $49 for its version of Linux and offers technical support for users. Those who download Linux on their own, on the other hand, have no central source to contact if they need assistance.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Transmeta Corporation
3940 Freedom Circle
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Business Phone: (408)919–3000


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