Torvalds says Linux thinks big and small
March 4, 1999
by David Needles
SAN JOSE, Calif. (IDG) -- Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, says its next target is scalability: The OS will eventually run on everything from personal digital assistants up to the most sophisticated multiprocessor computer systems. While Linux can run quite happily on older 386 PCs, "with version 2.2 we are about in the middle of the pack," says Torvalds. "Better at most on scalability, but not as good on really high-end systems."
But Torvalds takes his time approving new versions and changes to Linux, and he doesn't tout the latest developments. "I'm happy to say I still consider the old [2.1] version to be completely usable, and I'm happy that a lot of people won't upgrade because there is no value in their doing so," says Torvalds. (Changes to Linux continually float around the Internet, but version 2.2, released last month, replaces the last major update of two years ago.)
In a clear reference to Windows, Torvalds adds: "You shouldn't be in an endless maze of new versions to run new programs you don't need."
Torvalds, who created the open source operating system for fun eight years ago, received a hero's welcome before a packed hall of thousands of developers at the first LinuxWorld Conference & Expo here on Tuesday evening. His keynote culminated a week of major announcements from companies such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard announcing support for Linux, a derivative of UNIX.
Biggest booster: the Net
The biggest reason for Linux's success has been the Internet, which Torvald credits both as a distribution and feedback mechanism. "The feedback I get on the Internet has been a big motivational factor for me," says Torvalds. "It's where I find out about the bugs and other problems and what makes it possible to quickly make fixes." Torvalds and a small group of associates approve any changes to the core code of Linux.
Torvalds also notes that the Linux community, scattered as it is, gets word of bug fixes and other information out to users almost instantaneously via the Internet, which is a big difference from how large commercial software firms such as Microsoft address such problems. Torvalds says a major software company is more likely to accumulate information on bugs and schedule a package of bug fixes for release at six month intervals--even if specific fixes are readily available.
Stability and low cost
Linux users such as Daniel Airhart depend on the stability of the software. "Linux is all I use," says Airhart. "It's far more stable than Windows." But Airhart admits there are places Linux won't take him. For example, he says he only visits "Linux-friendly" Web sites that don't require Windows plug-ins and other software not supported by Linux.
Other users are attracted to Linux's low overhead. One consultant to nonprofit institutions says he can set up dozens of Internet-ready systems running Linux for the cost of a few newer Windows PCs. He retrofits donated 486 PCs with Linux, free e-mail through services like HotMail, a new hard drive, and an Ethernet card for about $200. "A lot of schools can't afford the latest technology, so I think it's a better choice to get a lot of systems into the hands of students rather than spending all the money on a few newer systems," he says.
Usage keeps broadening
Torvalds says Linux's easy customization is helping to broaden its appeal. "It's not just the base of application programs that is growing, but the applications, the uses people are finding for Linux," says Torvalds.
While some Linux purists may worry about the involvement of big commercial companies, Torvalds says they are doing the movement a big favor. "People selling CDs of Linux or preinstalling it on systems," says Torvalds, "have been instrumental in making Linux more usable and a more viable operating system."
Not quitting his day job
Torvalds spends a lot of time on Linux, but it's still just a sideline. His full-time job is at a Silicon Valley company called Transmeta, which is believed to be working on advanced chip development.
Although Torvalds is credited with helping to spark the open source movement, and more specifically, an alternative to Windows, he says he does not consider himself a visionary. "The industry has enough visionaries," says Torvalds. "I'm a pragmatist and a technologist." He didn't create Linux for some lofty ideal, he says, but because he wanted to do something technically challenging.
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