Linus Torvalds was only 22 when he decided in 1991 to share with friends and colleagues the code of Linux, the new OS he had created. The computer science student at the University of Helsinki could not imagine the revolution his decision would cause through the IT industry in the years to come. In this interview, he talks about why he released the code, offers his views on Microsoft, and says the future belongs to open source.
Computerworld: What did you want from the public release of Linux? Was it money?
Torvalds: It certainly wasn't money, since the original copyright was very strict about that. It wasn't the GPLv2, it was my own "no money at all, and you have to give sources back" license.
CW: Was it for fame or for fun? Could you imagine the revolution you were about to start?
LT: No, I didn't think that Linux would become as big and popular as it is now, so it wasn't really fame either. I'd like to say it was for fun, and that probably comes closest, but it might be more accurate to explain why I thought it would be fun. The releasing itself wasn't anything particularly fun, but what I was really looking for was feedback and comments.
When I released Linux in the fall of '91, I'd already been programming for a large chunk of my life, and it was what I did for fun. But I used to have a big problem in programming, namely, to find some issue to get excited about. I had done a few games, but I was never really all that interested in playing the games, so most of the time I was really looking for some interesting and relevant project for myself, so that I could keep programming.
That is where the public release comes in. I was hoping to get people to tell me what they thought needed improvement or what was good, and thus make the project more interesting for me. If I hadn't made it public, I'd probably have continued to use it myself, but it would have been good enough for what I did, and then I'd have to find a new project to work on. But it worked beautifully. I've been doing Linux for 16 years, and it's still interesting, exactly because I made it available publicly and asked for feedback.
CW: How did Linux, as a product, benefit by being released as it was?
LT: Well, in a very real sense, if I hadn't released it publicly, it would just have been a random small project of mine, and gotten use on my machines, but eventually it would have just been left behind as a "that was a fun project, let's see what else I can do" kind of thing. So, Linux really wouldn't have gone anywhere interesting at all if it hadn't been released as an open-source product.
I also think that the change to the GPLv2 (from my original "no money" License) was important, because the commercial interests were actually very important from the very beginning, even if they were much smaller initially. Even in early '92, you had small (hobbyist) commercial distributions that were really just cheap floppy-disk copying services, where interested individuals that were involved decided that they might as well try to spread the word and also maybe make a small amount of money on the side. The fact that I personally wasn't interested in that part of the picture was irrelevant.
And the thing is the commercial concerns from the very beginning, even when they were small, were really very important. The commercial distributions were what drove a lot of the nice installers, and pushed people to improve usability etcetera, and I think commercial users of Linux have been very important in actually improving the product. I think all the technical people who have been involved have been hugely important, but I think that the kind of commercial use that you can get with the GPLv2 is also important--you need a balance between pure technology, and the kinds of pressures you get from users through the market.
So I don't think marketing can drive that particular thing: if you have a purely marketing (or customer) driven approach, you end up with crap technology in the end. But I think that something that is purely driven by technical people will also end up as crap technology in the end, and you really need a balance here. So a lot of the really rabid "Free Software" people seem to often think that it's all about the developers, and that commercial interests are evil. I think that's just stupid. It's not just about the individual developers; it's about all the different kinds of interests all being able to work on things together.