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CNN Movers

Linus Torvalds Gives Away a Masterpiece Before Stepping Down Road to Fame and Fortune

Aired March 11, 2000 - 3:30 p.m. ET



LINUS TORVALDS, CREATOR, LINUX OPERATING SYSTEM: It's not about me personally, I think that Linux in general. I think that's what investors see, that it's something new, it's something exciting. It's also something that is changing the kind of infrastructure, how it works, and that's always a big deal.

JAN HOPKINS, HOST (voice-over): Linus Torvalds sits cross-legged and calm at the center of a very big deal he created in 1991: Linux, an operating system that now runs eight million of the world's computers. Torvalds's decision to distribute Linux for free and reveal its underlying source code has made him a quasi-cult figure.

The success of Linux has spawned scores of companies selling software and services that revolve around the operating system. Twenty-thousand Linux users and vendors gathered this winter in New York to talk shop and meet their somewhat reluctant leader.

TORVALDS: I don't like doing talks. I am a programmer. That's what I enjoy doing. It's been a lot of fun to kind of be a technical lead person and organize the Linux system in that way, but I have been forced into trying to be a kind of poster boy for Linux. And actually the whole open-source community at large, even though I wasn't even the person who started open source.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I have the pleasure of giving you my business card?

TORVALDS: I will later probably have the pleasure of shredding it.

HOPKINS: The young man who's hand is in great demand is a 30- year-old software programmer and the brains behind a complex operating system. Seems a lot like Bill Gates, right? To his legions of fans, however, Torvalds is the antithesis of Gates, a software savior who's rescuing the world an evil monolith named Microsoft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is -- looked up to, sort of, like, a God, fighting for the good stuff, you know. All these people are here, I think in support of him, what he built, what he made. You know, so it's a big thing. It's a good thing. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a revolution that's happening. It's just -- it seems wonderful that's the new millennium for us, and that the world is saved, in many respects, the computer world, and it's wrong to try to become a monopoly and then just never stop. I mean, there must be a point when you decide, OK, enough is enough, let's share this information with people.

HOPKINS: Sharing the information is the heart and soul of the Linux movement. Torvalds wrote the computer code for Linux in 1991, as a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Helsinki. The Finnish-born programmer then distributed his work on the then-fledgling Internet. That allowed other programmers impressed by Linux to suggest changes and improvements to Torvalds. Giving away his brainchild for free has earned Torvalds many labels.

(on camera): You're a socialist?

TORVALDS: That's one of the labels.

HOPKINS: Is that true?

TORVALDS: No. It is true that, I mean -- I -- my personal belief system is more one of personal honor, and I don't care what anybody else does. I want to do what I feel is right, and part of that is -- it is also about having a social conscience, and if you call that socialism, then yes, I guess I'm a socialist.

HOPKINS (voice-over): The success of Linux has involved thousands of individual programmers, led by Torvalds. But Linux remains a hobby for him. Torvalds is a software engineer at Transmeta, a Silicon Valley-based chip designer. Linux has barely made a dent in the market for personal computers, but Torvalds isn't worried.

TORVALDS: What we've seen is that Linux has the potential to succeed in just about any market. And in fact, it has succeeded very surprisingly well in quite varied markets, and I've seen Linux supercomputers. I've seen Linux fridges. A Linux fridge actually was done as a kind of concept thing in Japan, where you had a Web browser on the door of the fridge, and the idea was that maybe you could just distract the person who was going to get even more fatter by just getting him stuck at the Web browser instead of actually opening the door.


HOPKINS: His admirers praise Torvalds for not profiting from sale of Linux, but Torvalds has cashed in. He received what he calls small amounts of stock when several Linux-inspired companies went public, including Red Hat and VA Linux Systems. Those stocks have soared from their initial public offering prices. The successful Linux IPOs have raised the profile of the Linux movement and made Torvalds a happier and richer man.

TORVALDS: One of the reasons I'm so happy about the kind of Wall Street success is, I mean, it's good for my ego, but also because now there are people that are really aware of the fact that, OK, Linux is part of the story, but hey, we can go to somebody else to get the story.

HOPKINS (on camera): So even though you have not profited from the selling of the software, which is basically free, you are profiting from the fact that it's so successful?

TORVALDS: Oh yes. And it's definitely more than just ego and more than just feeling very happy about work well done. I actually expect to be able to buy a house sometime in Silicon Valley, which is...

HOPKINS: A hard thing to do, right?

TORVALDS: Well, yes, and a year ago, I was fairly despairing about those -- that possibility. But I mean, that is, I'm expecting to buy a house; I'm not expecting to buy a mansion.

HOPKINS (voice-over): When MOVERS returns, from the chill of Finland to the hot housing market of Silicon Valley, why Linus Torvalds created his own operating system, gave it away for free, and later, left his homeland.



HOPKINS (voice-over): Linus Torvalds defies the Silicon Valley stereotype of a young, single technogeek who spends all his time at work. Torvalds is married and spends plenty of time at home with his wife, Tove, and their two young daughters, Patricia and Daniella (ph). The family rents a modest house in California Silicon Valley. They speak English and Swedish, the first language of 5 percent of Finns.


HOPKINS: Torvalds met Tove while the two were students at the University of Helsinki. She took a course he taught, computer science 101. Tove is a former kindergarten instructor, who gives Torvalds high marks as a husband but low grades as a teacher.

TOVE TORVALDS, LINUS' WIFE: He definitely wasn't a good teacher, because he is like, he is too clever, so he doesn't understand that there are people who definitely don't understand anything, so he was like, how can you ask something this horrible? How can you? I mean, why don't you understand this?

HOPKINS: Torvalds received his introduction to computers as a child. His grandfather, a statistics professor, brought home a computer and enlisted his grandson to help him use it.

(on camera): This was a Commodore, right?

TORVALDS: This was a Commodore, a big 20. I mean, this was a -- I mean, most watches of today have more processing power than that thing had, right? And he used it as a programmable calculator. And he actually used it for his work. And I was, like, playing around with it, reading the manuals, which was not that easy, and in English for a 10-year-old boy. And then, more and more time spent with the computer, and it just developed very slowly. There was never a moment of, flash, OK, this is my future.

HOPKINS (voice-over): The future creator of the Linux operating systems cut his computer teeth writing simple programs and games. One involved a submarine, large fish and a shrinking underwater tunnel. In school, Torvalds excelled at math and physics. He credits the quality and inexpensive cost of the Finnish educational system with helping him achieve his current position in life.

TORVALDS: And it shows up all the way through, like, first grade up to university that you take good education pretty much for granted, and it's cheap. Basically, one of the reasons I was able to do Linux in the first place was that unlike most American college students or university students I didn't have to worry about making tuition. Because in Finland, tuition at a good university like Helsinki University is, is about 50 bucks a year. So it's very different.

And that means that when you go to a university in Finland, you're not in a hurry to get out of this expensive school in order to actually be able to pay back your student loan.

HOPKINS (on camera): And, in fact, you stayed for a long time, right?

TORVALDS: I stayed for a long time. I mean, I think I was -- it took me eight and a half years before I go my masters. And, I mean, most people have at least one Ph.D. by that time. Well, most people maybe not in Finland, because it's actually fairly common to go for a long time. And it allows you to do other things on the side. I mean I was -- I was actually teaching as a T.A. at the university, but I was obviously also doing Linux.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Torvalds started doing Linux because he wanted to use Unix on his personal computer. Unix is an operating system developed by Bell Labs and known for its power and stability. But Unix was designed and priced for businesses and universities, not individuals. So Torvalds decided to write his own operating system.

TORVALDS: I decided just, how hard can it be? I mean, I was -- I programmed for most of my life at that point already, and I wanted to have something fun to do. And I you obviously needed to do something like Linux. So I just went out and did it.

HOPKINS (on camera): And how long did it take?

TORVALDS: It took about a half a year before I was actually comfortable enough that I started telling some -- put it up, the first version on the Internet, and told maybe five people.

HOPKINS: And when you decided to share it on the Internet, what was your thinking? TORVALDS: It was fun. I'd like to just show other people, show off to some degree even. Saying, hey, what do you think? I think this is a cool project.

HOPKINS: You didn't think about getting a patent or protecting what you had, selling what you had?

TORVALDS: What I did with the first version was that I said, you can do whatever you want with it, but you can't sell it. You cannot sell it, because I -- I said that -- make changes to it. If you make changes, you have to send the changes back to me. And I still think that I made the right decision, that -- that I got a lot more out of it this way. And it's being -- I don't have ulcers. I don't expect I will have ulcers, because I'm not -- I'm not out there selling to people, you know, whether they want to be sold to or not. I'm doing what I want to do, and I'm having great time doing it. So...

HOPKINS: No regrets?

TORVALDS: Definitely no regrets.

HOPKINS: Ahead on MOVERS, the secret project that brought Linus Torvalds to Silicon Valley.




HOPKINS (voice-over): Linus Torvalds has a cool hand when it comes to writing software. That, not his skill at playing pool, is why a Silicon Valley startup named Transmeta hired him in 1997. Transmeta was in the midst of a secret project, creating a low-power microchip that relies on silicon and software. The company flew Torvalds to California and told him the secret.

TORVALDS: And my first reaction was, OK, these people are crazy, right? I mean, they're -- what? They expect that to work? -- kind of crazy. And I went back to the hotel where I was staying thinking, OK, that was a waste of time. I just thought that, hey, that's the company that I want to work for, somebody who's doing something crazy, something that hasn't been done before.

HOPKINS: First Torvalds challenged Microsoft's hold on the market for operating systems by giving away Linux. Now he's part of a team going up against chip giant Intel. Torvalds started out leading a Transmeta group working on a type of programming called dynamic translation.

COLIN HUNTER, V.P. SOFTWARE, TRANSMETA: Linus came in and about two weeks after he showed up, the guy who was currently leading it came to me and said Linus knew more about it than he did and that he recommended Linus be in charge of that area, because he had just picked it up so fast, he had found mistakes, and he -- you know, he had never really done dynamic translation as an area before. He became an expert very, very rapidly. So that is what it was like to work with him.

HOPKINS: Torvalds doesn't like managing people and doubts he'll ever run his own company. He still works on Linux, answering e-mails, updating the operating system, giving speeches. His bosses don't mind. He's extremely productive and his celebrity status generates tons of free publicity for Transmeta.

That paid off in January, when the company finally unveiled its chip, called Crusoe. All the attention for the company that spent $100 million and nearly five years before unveiling its product raised a few eyebrows.

(on camera): One of the questions, actually, about Transmeta was whether they were using you to get publicity.

TORVALDS: Right, right, right, yes.

HOPKINS: What about that?

TORVALDS: I never felt that I was getting used simply because I joined Trnsmeta under very different circumstances, where three years ago Linux was big in the technical crowd, but nobody really expected me to be big in this kind of crows. So I never got the feeling that Transmeta wanted me because of my, kind of, PR image, I got the feeling that Transmeta wanted me for my technical prowess, right?

HOPKINS (voice-over): Torvald's colleagues at Transmeta treat him as one of the guys, even though he's the guy with the camera crew looking over his shoulder.

DAN QUINLAN, SOFTWARE ENGINEER, TRANSMETA: He's one of the engineers here, so people don't go to his office and, you know, bow down before they go into his office or anything like that, you know. We go ask him if he wants to play a game of pool, because he's one of the guys that plays pool.

CLAUDIO FLEINER, SOFTWARE ENGINEER, TRANSMETA: He's nice to work with, friendly. He's never arrogant or anything you could expect from someone that gets so much attention.

HOPKINS: Up next on MOVERS, what Linus Torvalds really thinks about Microsoft and Bill Gates.




HOPKINS (voice-over): San Francisco in February, comeback rock star Carlos Santana lends a hand to Bill Gates, as the Microsoft chairman unveils his newest weapon, Windows 2000. Microsoft hopes the operating system will increase its lead in a market where Linux is making its greatest gains: computer servers used by large organizations.

(on camera): Do you think that Bill Gates worries about you?

TORVALDS: No. I think he thinks about Linux a lot ,because I just think that he is a person who likes to be in control. I mean, Microsoft is his baby, and he worries about anything that keeps his baby from being number one, and Linux is one of those things. I don't think he really, really worries deep down, because he can always look at his pile of cash, and say, OK, I'm OK, right, so.

HOPKINS: Do you see that somewhere down the line, that Linux is going to be bigger than Microsoft?

TORVALDS: I think that Microsoft is going to be smaller than Microsoft, that Microsoft is obviously in an enviable position from a market sense right now. But at the same time, this is what is called despotism, to control a resource. That's what happened in the Old West when people controlled the resource of water, and became very rich in the process. It's a powerful tool for making money, but it does have one downside, and the one downside is that it never lasts forever. And when it breaks as a tool, you've lost everything, and that's going to happen.

HOPKINS: You're working for a company that eventually hopes to have an initial public offering. You have stakes in a number of Linux IPOs. Have you become a capitalist?

TORVALDS: I'm actually a big believer in market forces. I think that money is a wonderful tool as a kind of universal barter. It's not interesting in itself, but is interesting as a kind of phenomenon and what you can do with it.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Torvalds says he lives for the moment. His only plan for the future is to keep working on interesting projects. For Torvalds, that means writing software, something he calls art.

TORVALDS: What makes software exciting to me is that you still have to be an engineer, in the sense that you have to make something that works, and you have to make something that is stable, something that can take a two-ton bus over the bridge kind of thing, but at same time, you have much more freedom than you have when you're building a bridge or a building. You can pretty much make up your own rules, to a large degree. And it is artistry, at least for good programmers. There's a lot of art in there. Plus, you get paid, which you usually don't get if you paint pictures, right? So...

HOPKINS: Linus Torvalds, a mover who gave away his first masterpiece for free, a step that put him on a road to fame and fortune.


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