|The creator of Linux tells how in two decades his invention went from being the heart of an open operating system to becoming a friendly desktop environment and at the heart of Android, Google's operating system that is having impressive success on cell phones. tablets, etc.|
- It is 20 years since the birth of Linux, what is the exact date of its creation?
Well, for me there was obviously no particular date, as I was working on this for quite some time before it was released. However, I think that any of the dates that are being mentioned are reasonable. So depending on how it is counted, there can be three different dates. The one that I think is most relevant is September 17, 1991, which was when I made the linux-0.01 version of compiled files and uploaded it to a public site, ftp.funet.fi. However, I never actually publicly announced the release of version 0.01 (I just e-mailed a few people privately), so for that reason, two other dates tend to be mentioned as well: October 5 was the first. time I announced the release of Linux publicly (the announcement "remember those beautiful days of minix-1.1 when men were men and wrote their own drivers for their devices?" of Linux-0.02 in the minix newsgroup). And some count July 3, because even though I wasn't ready to post anything back then, it's the date of my first public mention of having been working on the project. So it's a matter of taste. Personally, I would like to tend to use September 17 as the date of birth.
–Did you ever think that Linux could become so big?
-Obviously not. At the same time, most of the growth was very gradual, so there was never a feeling of great surprise at any particular time. Just looking back, you get that feeling of "well, this worked much better than expected."
- Do you think Linux had a political sense, was it a social contribution or is its merit simply productive?
- I think it has all those themes for different people. Personally, I did (and still do) for my own personal reasons. I think it's fun and interesting, and I wanted an operating system for my personal use. The fact that other people have helped, and that they have different reasons to help (ranging from those who simply want to make money to those who have social or political motivations) is interesting, but those reasons are still not the reasons why I do Linux. Of course, the fact that other people are enthusiastically involved, and the fact that Linux makes a difference to so many people, helps motivate me as well. I enjoy working on Linux for its own sake, but obviously I enjoy the fact that it is a great project that has made a huge impact around the world.
- How does it feel to have your name associated with a product used by millions of people around the world, even without knowing that it is about you?
"It's great, of course." We all want to feel relevant, and think that we are making a difference in this world. Having a job where you feel productive, and knowing that the work you do "matters" is a great challenge.
- What is the current state of Linux: how many lines of code does it have, how many people work?
–The number of people is difficult to estimate. It's easy to give raw numbers (about a thousand people have author credits on each kernel release in the code control logs), but what does that mean? Some of those people make trivial one-line contributions, others write thousands of lines of code. But what about all those people who do tests and other supports? Meanwhile, relative to the number of lines of code, the current kernel source tree has around 14 million lines. Not all of that is "code", obviously, that includes all the comments, documentation, infrastructure construction, and some code tools as well. Almost half of that is drivers, a big chunk of that is support architecture for the 20+ architectures we support, and we have over 60 different system files, although most people use one or two. So out of the 14 million lines of code in the kernel, many of those features don't affect most users. The kernel heart is much smaller. But it can be told in another way too: what is Linux? It is not necessarily just a kernel issue, but it is something related to all the projects around, some of which are not Linux specific, but are used in other operating systems as well. So it is very difficult to give a simple number of anything.
- What are the main challenges for Linux?
–For the kernel, one of the biggest issues is simply providing hardware support. Supporting all the hardware that is out there is what we spend the most time and effort on right now. At the same time, we have had many challenges on the maintenance level as well. It is the question of how to work together in a loosely knit community, building an infrastructure (just organizing the source code) to make working together possible. Some of these tools (like the Git project to maintain the source code) are more a matter of living with an ethereal community, many of the challenges simply have to do with building social links between people to make it possible for them to work together.
- Who are the main partners?
–The choice of words you make is strange. There are many people that I work very closely with and trust personally. They tend to work in many technology companies, which are involved with Linux. But I work with them simply as people, not as "representatives of their companies." So I trust them personally, not because they work in this or that company that works on a particular issue. Obviously, there are many companies that have been very helpful in helping to support Linux. They do different things, they tend to focus on different areas, and all of this is not just about writing code. In addition to the engineers I work with, the companies that do marketing, do error checking, user support. All is important. And I am not going to name them either individually or through their companies, because I would not be in a position to say who is more important than the other: that depends on your interest and your use.
- What is the main enemy of Linux?
"I don't think that way." I make Linux for my own positive purposes, and when I compare against something in particular, it is against ourselves. I want to improve Linux to be better than it is so far, not to compete with anyone else. I used to make jokes about Microsoft, but it really wasn't about them, or any other tech company.
- But private patents, for example, are not an enemy of the movement "open source"?
-Ahh yes. Patents are a problem. Many patents are totally ridiculous, but fighting against them is complicated and expensive. The good news is that most companies hate them too, so there's a hope that the system will change, or at least tweak a bit.
- What Linux distribution do you recommend?
–Personally, I usually use Fedora, but the important word is “soil”. It is due to a number of random historical reasons. I worry about programming the heart, so for me a distribution is just a way to have a new machine to be useful. I don't worry too much because I'm going to replace the parts that I really deal with in depth. It's about the kernel, git, and historically some other projects if needed. The recommended distribution really ends up being a question of what use is given in each case. Android is used for phones, Ubuntu for the low learning curve, and other custom distributions, which will depend on you. For most of the people out there, the best distro ends up being the one around people who want to use Linux, that way you can share experiences and learn from others.
- Don't you think Ubuntu is too fast in updates and can sometimes be counterproductive?
-I do not think so. You want cutting edge distributions, trying new things, in the same way that you want stable distributions that are outdated for a long time because they don't want to rock the boat. As I am a person who comes from the technical world, I think that cutting-edge distributions are much more interesting, of course. And for many users it is the correct way to proceed as well. You have early access to new features and capabilities. Of course, this comes with the sharp edges, which stem from the matter of being shiny and being in the novelty, so some folks are definitely going to prefer a quieter approach.
- What desktop environment should be used?
- There is no "should". It is a matter of personal preferences and what you are used to. I had a very bad experience with people who developed a desktop who thought they could change the world. I walked away from KDE when they made their big switch to KDE-4. And now I'm moving away from Gnome-3 for the same reason. The desk, more than anything else, is something one is used to in relation to. This is obviously why the market for "desktops" in general is so difficult to change.
- Does the term "open source" leave the door open to letting proprietary software into the Linux kernel?
-No. Open source is much more about not owning. This is the central point of the word "open".
- What ideology does Linux have?
- I don't think there is "one" ideology. I don't think there should be an ideology. The important part of that is the word "one": I think there may be "many" ideologies. I do it for my own reasons, other people do it for their reasons. I think the world is a complicated place, and people are an interesting animal, who do things for complex reasons. So I don't think there should be "one" ideology. It's really refreshing to see people working on Linux because they believe they can make the world a better place by distributing technology and making it available to people more widely. Many believe that open source is a good way to do that. That is "an" ideology. I think it's a great ideology. It's not really why I started making Linux, but it fills me with excitement to see how Linux is used in that sense. But I also think it's cool to see all the commercial companies using open source simply because it's good for their business. This is a totally different ideology, and I think it's a perfectly good ideology too. The world would be a much worse place if we didn't have companies doing things for money. So the only ideology that I really despise and dislike is the kind of ideology that tries to exclude the others. I despise people whose ideology is about "the only true ideology", and for whom the one who does not follow this particular set of moral guidelines is either a "devil" or is "wrong". These are small-minded and stupid people, to me. So the important part about open source is not the ideology, it is that anyone can use it for their own needs and for their own reasons. The copyright license is there to keep that openness alive, and to make sure the project doesn't become fragmented between people who hide their improvements from each other and have to re-implement the changes others make, but it's not there to comply with some ideology. .
- Has the international crisis been a growth opportunity for the open source movement?
"I wouldn't mean it like that." I think that in some cases there are difficult times to show the reasons to do something (the expression “necessity is the mother of inventions” is about how necessity and difficult times can be a good opportunity for new ideas and new things) . But at the same time, I really think that the most real developments happen without a crisis. So now, in times of global economic downturn, a lot of companies are migrating to Linux and open source because they can't afford the licensing costs and things like that. But at the same time, if we look back at the moment before the crisis, people were using Linux in new and exciting ways, too.
- Do you think that the phenomenon of Android, Google's operating system for cell phones, is another example of the power of free software?
-Absolutely. The notion that you can take open source software, and do things with it that were never planned by its original creators, and use them in surprising ways is really the core idea of open source. Android is a good example of how Linux - which most people thought of as just a server operating system just ten years ago - now also thinks of us as a mobile operating system. And that's exactly because people were able to use the software and make their own implementations.
- What do you think of Google's Chromebook notebook? Isn't it ironic that open source software has made a system that leaves the user a “slave” to a single company?
"But you have a very negative view of the world, don't you ...?"
- No, it is not a negative vision… I am simply a journalist, and I ask you questions.
–Hey, a good part of my family is a journalist (my mom, my dad, my uncle and my grandfather). I don't think it takes a pessimist to be a journalist.
"But isn't it ironic?"
"I'm not sure where Chrome is going." But at the same time it is very clear (just look at cell phones and tablets) that most "non-techies" do not want a general purpose computer. There are a lot of people who don't really want to do maintenance on their own computer, but want access to the most common things, such as Internet browsing, e-mail, word processing, photo management, and so on. And while tablets seem very sexy these days, I think a lot of people just want the keyboard and mouse. Typing things on a tablet is really not very comfortable. So I think Chromebook makes sense in that kind of consumer area. Why is he going to make people "slaves"? It is a matter of convenience. Are you a slave to electricity simply because you depend on them, and have you paid them to make electricity available?
–Do you think that the fact that many developers who made the OpenOffice program to write separated from the project to create LibreOffice (this is called a “fork”) shows the strength of the open source movement and the “dictatorship” of the communities , or is it an exceptional case?
–In fact I think OpenOffice is another example in a series of chained patterns where people try to "control" a project too much and it eventually breaks down because the controlling "party" was not in tune with the users. The move from OpenOffice to Oracle and the tightening of that control was what completely broke it, there were rumors for years how OpenOffice had been developed. And no, I don't think it is an exceptional case in any way. Many projects have been in this kind of situation and what ends up happening is that when the problem becomes too acute, someone “forks” the project (takes a free code and makes a version with a new name).
It's a big, painful step, and forks don't always succeed, but they definitely do. And sometimes the fork ends up being temporary, but it is an event that shows the original group that they cannot ignore other types of pressure. In those cases the forks are turned back and that usually involves an opening of the heart of the developer group. And in some cases the fork becomes a wide gap that never closes, or for technical reasons (the change has been so great as to go back), or mainly because the two projects have different points of view where to go. XEmacs versus GNU emacs is by far the best known historical example of that, but many projects have gone through that phase. And I think forks are a good thing. It's what keeps people honest in the open source world. Anyone who maintains an open source project knows that you need to keep your mind open because otherwise someone else can just come and fork your project. So a fork can be very scathing and painful, but I think it is part of the whole open source model.
–Will Linux keep the GPLv2 license or will it migrate to GPLv3?
–Oh, Linux will remain in the GPLv2 version.
- How is your daily work currently?
"I write very little code these days." I read emails, combine codes from others, discuss changes and tell people why I am not going to combine their code. So 99 percent of what I do has to do with communication, and maintaining the central repository of kernel source code, without actually programming myself. I make some changes, and in each code release there are usually several comments written by me (in addition to the hundreds of comments combined I make), but it is not a large amount of code in a real sense.
–When is kernel version 3 released?
–I am seriously considering releasing the next version as 3.0, partly because of this whole 20-year anniversary issue, but also because the numbers are getting bigger and bigger: version 2.6 has gotten so big, and the 39th part of the current version is a whole number too difficult to remember.
- What are the hardware companies most reluctant to support Linux?
- Most of the hardware companies are supporting Linux. But many of them do not have good documentation (and more importantly, they do not have a tradition of writing public documentation of any kind) and many of them are still sitting on their own "fence". Many companies seem especially reluctant. Nvidia, in the PC world, has been a problem, as wireless chipmakers have historically been. People in the wireless world seem to have given up, but graphics chip makers are still a problem. So the Linux world is generally troublesome to find good accelerated 3D drivers. And because? Who knows. Perhaps they are afraid that it will be shown that someone's intellectual property has ever been stolen, and that by making it public they will be known and sued. I really don't know why. This has been mentioned as one of the possible reasons, for having the code closed and the hardware closed. Another typical reason, especially because they have closed source, is that it is so poorly made and full of bugs that they are too embarrassed to show it.
- Finally, could you sit down with Richard Stallman - the creator of the Free Software Foundation, and the concept of free software - to iron out differences, or are they already irreconcilable by now?
"Oh, I've come across RMS many times and we have too different ideas about how things should be done." He is much more focused on the whole question of "an ideology" of how things should be done. And I am against that.
- Why do you think people use the term GNU little to talk about Linux?
–I never used the name GNU. Linux was never a Free Software Foundation project, and the FSF never had anything to do with it. Most of the tools are not GNU, either, although the GNU C compiler was and is a great invention. So the term GNU / Linux never made much sense. Having said that, I never thought that people wouldn't be able to call it whatever they want. Most distributions give the system its own name: Fedora, SuSE, Ubuntu, Android, Mandriva, the list goes on. So if the FSF wants to call it GNU / Linux, why should I be concerned? It doesn't make much more sense than calling a kind of hat that, after all.
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