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LINUS TORVALDS

Ask a group of computer enthusiasts today to name their favorite operating system and the chances are it will be Linux. Linux is the open-source operating system that has prompted an outbreak of Linuxmania in the computing world, where it is touted as a potential competitor to Microsoft’s all-powerful Windows. The thirty-something Finn Linus Torvalds didn’t invent the open-source movement, (much of the credit for that is given to Eric Raymond and Brian Behlendorf) but he did turn the spotlight on it as never before. In doing so he has highlighted how the Internet has made it possible to rethink the organization and the process of product development.

Torvalds was barely out of diapers when he started programming computers. Aged 10, he was writing computer games for a Commodore VIC-20 that his grandfather had bought him. At Helsinki University, he graduated from computer games to operating systems. He didn’t like his PC’s pre-installed operating system (Microsoft’s DOS), preferring the University’s UNIX system. The problem was that there was no UNIX version for PCs. So he wrote one: "When I was 21, I was very self-assured when it came to programming and not very self-assured when it came to anything else. But I knew I was the best programmer in the world. So I just decided ‘Hey, why couldn’t I do this myself?’ And so I did." He called the new OS "Linux". And then, astonishingly, instead of making millions of dollars from his new program, he gave away the source code. This instantly made him a hero of the open-source movement.

Torvalds has moved to Silicon Valley, still continues to have an input into the development of the Linux OS and is also involved in a new project at Transmeta. Transmeta is threatening to shake up the cozy coterie of chip manufacturers, Intel and AMD. Transmeta (www.transmeta.com) has come up with a revolutionary approach to micro processing. In its new Crusoe microprocessor, Transmeta’s developers have managed to combine the silicon chip with a microchip instruction set executed entirely in software. This means the processor can "learn" and be modified over time, it also means high speeds with little power drain. In other words it’s a mobile computer manufacturer’s dream.

Ten years on from Linux, Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues met up with Torvalds in his corner office
at Transmeta’s Silicon Valley HQ.

Why did you decide to work for Transmeta? What was the attraction?

Well, no-one does something drastic like moving to a new country with his family for just one reason, so there was certainly more than one thing that made Transmeta very attractive to me. The main one, though, was simply that of all the projects I'd heard of, Transmeta's was the most interesting technically. To a large degree what we did (and do) is basic research, which at the same time has a very obvious and very immediate practical application too. There are not all that many projects around like that. Couple that with the energy and excitement of working at a start-up, and I certainly still think I made the right decision.

Is there any relationship with Linux?

Well, a lot of what Transmeta does is actually fairly intimately tied in to what made me start Linux in the first place. Linux originally grew out of my own project to learn all about the Intel 80386 architecture, and while my work at Transmeta has been very different from my Linux work, there certainly are a lot of overlapping interests.

How did you find adapting to Silicon Valley?

I personally had a very easy time to adapt to Silicon Valley -- probably at least partly because of being able to fit in with work so well. My wife took more time to get used to it, although she's certainly done so by now. And our eldest daughter was just ten weeks old when we moved, so she never even knew Finland. Apart from work, the climate has certainly been part of the reason we've settled down so well. Coming from Finland I can certainly tell you that it makes a huge difference.

What's your forecast for the Linux movement? Do you think it's a true challenger of Microsoft market dominance?

Mostly I really don't think like that. To me, Linux has always
been about the technology, not so much about market share. I certainly think that Linux is a true challenger - I've done so for years, and the last few years have obviously not produced any reason to become any less optimistic.

Will your work with Transmeta affect the Linux movement?

It hasn't really so far. Oh, it's changed some things on how I work,
not the least because now I'm in the middle of a lot of high-tech
companies using it and some things are easier to do from Silicon Valley than from Finland, but on the whole things haven't changed much. You have to realize that I had a life outside Linux even before I joined Transmeta - people just didn't talk all that much about things like having to get a degree etc at university.

 
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