Linus Torvalds - King of the Ball (CSE40842 Reading 11)

Linus Torvalds - King of the Ball (CSE40842 Reading 11)

2021, May 02    

Linux Growing Pains

As Linux grew, Linus realized he needed to take a more active role in communicating with the Linux developer and user community. He worked with his college CS department to promote Linux by hosting a release event for version 1.0. By focusing his promotion on Open Source in general and not just the Linux project, Linus was able to reach a larger audience and cement Linux as a truly groundbreaking computer science achievement. The excitement around Linux grew from just hobbyists and hackers to “business types” and large companies. Linus expectedly ran into some issues from his rapid success, with one prominent example being that an individual was squatting on the trademark for Linux which required Linus to take legal action. Linus also ran into some issues when he took a job at Transmeta. His capabilities and dedication to Linux fell into question among users in online forums who felt he was either giving Linux up to this company or abandoning the project for industry. In actuality, Linus was able to maintain a healthy balance of working at Transmeta, working on Linux, and spending time with his family.

Neither Transmeta nor Linux has ever gotten in the way of a good night’s sleep.

Because he didn’t work on Linux directly at work, he was able to stay motivated for both his Transmeta work and Linux work. I think this detail is extremely important to note - Linus was able to distinguish his “work work” from his “play work” (Linux as a hobby project) so that he did not burn out on one or the other.

Linus Meets Steve Jobs and Bill Joy

Linus and Steve “had basic differences in how [they] viewed the world”. Linus describes Steve as having a sort of tunnel vision about his own goals for Apple and OS X with a lack of interest in hearing criticism or other suggestions for attaining his goals. It sounds as though Jobs more or less assumed Linus would be enthused to work on or help with OS X, but in actuality the type of product and user base for Apple differed from Linus’ own wants. Linus met Bill Joy at a meeting before a conference. He actually ended up walking out on him due to disagreements with how Sun Microsystems was licensing their “open source” software. The license more or less made any commercial use of the “open source” software into a closed source model. Linus felt that Joy and the Sun team were hypocritical and attempting to ride the open source hype train of the time. Linus mentions that his other times meeting Joy had been better than this first meeting, but you can definitely sense the frustration in his description of this initial meeting. Linus also discusses some cultural differences between him and Joy in that Joy expressed concern over the rapid change that the technology and open source movements were causing to human society. Linus takes the attitude of “the show must go on” - we cannot stop evolution. I think the main differences between Linus, Jobs, and Joy is what motivates them. Linus likes things that are technically challenging and interesting to him, while Jobs and Joy focus more on the business outcomes of their tech.

Suffering from Success ?

Large players started embracing open source. First came Mozilla with Netscape, then Sun with offering Linux on its servers and IBM offering support for Apache. You might expect this to add stress to Linus’ life or change his lifestyle, but he writes that “the Linux developments weren’t affecting my daily life”. Even though there was rapid success of Linux, Linus was still able to dedicate time to his work, life at home, and Linux and open source. Linus attributes a lot of the success and rapid adoption of Linux to its versatility and the freedom it gives to users. Linux is not tied down to some niche industry or product but rather has applicability in a variety of sectors. Companies liked using Linux because they don’t have to deal with many of the legal and licensing issues that come up in join projects with other large corporations. Linus recognizes that without adoption of Linux by large companies, the project likely would not have survived or grown to be as ubiquitous as it is today. Linus handled his success extremely well in my opinion. Instead of viewing himself as the arbiter of truth when it comes to Linux, he views himself as yet another member of the community and tries to keep an open mind about the project. He knows that if he did not have an open mind, progress on Linux might slow down:

In order to hold a very strong opinion, you have to exclude all the other opinions. And that means you have to become unreasonable.

Linus did his part as the de-facto leader of Linux by attending conferences and giving speeches, something he saw as an obligation to spread the word about Linux. It’s interesting to note how revered Linus was (and is) in the tech community. He came across as something of an everyhacker (hacker equivalent of the everyman). I think Linux and Linus’ success is a product of both a bazaar of hackers and fortunate circumstances. As I noted in a previous post on this book, success is often a product of hard work, determination, and luck. Linus certainly had all three (and more factors) on his side. He himself would admit that the Linux project, while initiated by him, is not successful because of himself alone. Rather, it is a culmination of work by hundreds (thousands?) of hackers coming together to make something technologically interesting. I’m not sure there will ever be an open source success story as big as Linux. Linux, as mentioned, is so versatile and applicable that its presence in tech has become near ubiquitous. Perhaps FireFox is an equivalent enough example due to the ubiquity of web browsers on devices these days, but I struggle to think of another area of computer science / technology that would be a good place for another widely prominent open source project.


This post is in response to Reading 11 of the Hackers in the Bazaar course offered at the University of Notre Dame.