Linus Torvalds interview: Linux and the future of computing

By Graeme Burton
17 Dec 2012 View Comments
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In the first part of our three-part interview, Linux pioneer Linus Torvalds talked about how he got into computing, Raspberry Pi and the "free software" movement.

Further reading

In the second part, Torvalds takes us from Linux in the real world to the future of computing.

Q. What practical difference would you say that Linux has made "in the real world"?

The biggest impact of Linux has often been in areas that most users aren't necessarily even aware of. For example, in pure numbers, Android is likely the use of Linux that has the most people actually interacting with it directly every day (at some point Google was saying that they had half a million Android activations every day), yet almost nobody really thinks of it as being based on a Linux kernel. Sure, you can go into the settings menu and see the kernel version, but how many users really care?

And the thing is, users generally shouldn't care. They really shouldn't care what operating system they are running, they should care about the work they get done. The operating system should not only be invisible, but pretty much irrelevant.

And I'm fine with that. I think the real impact Linux has had is that it has enabled people to experiment and use the code-base that we've developed to build upon, and do more interesting things. I quoted Edison earlier, but my real favourite quote is from Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

He was talking about how science builds upon the base that has been built before, and the same is very much true in technology. And I think that's where open source really shines - and is why I think open source is so important. Open source is basically taking the scientific approach of building on top of the openly published work of others, and applying it to software.

And software is too important in the modern world not to be developed that way. And that's what the real impact of Linux hopefully is - a way to allow people and companies to build on top of it to do their own thing. Whether that is a pure open source company like Red Hat, or whether it's by creating a product like Android (or Tivo, or a number of other things) on top of it is really not important. The important part is the concept that you can build on top of it.

Q. What plans are there to give it a greater impact?

I think a big part of the success of Linux has been the choice of licence... And the choice of the GNU Public Licence v2 (GPLv2) really is very important. It's what protects everybody from a wild free-for-all. Anybody can use it, and anybody can make improvements to it, but you have to make those improvements available to others.

And while those rules really came from technical people who were looking for a way to not be "taken advantage" of, it turns out that a lot of commercial companies really end up liking the rules too.

Sure, they have to make their changes available publicly, and that can sometimes feel like giving away your work, but since that rule applies to everybody, it really ends up being a case of the biblical "Give, and it will be given to you". And with so many people and companies involved, everybody really ends up getting more out of it than they put in.

There are other factors: Lucky timing and tons of good people involved. But if I had to boil it down to one single thing that mattered the most, I really would point to the licence. 

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