Linus Torvalds: Open source without commercial interests = crap

Open source did very well without companies getting involved. It has done even better with these companies. Linus Torvalds explains why.

Linuxworld has a thought-provoking interview with Linus Torvalds that is a must-read. Linus is always interesting, but this one is particularly valuable because he addresses the role of commercial interests in making Linux better. He also talks about his personal motivations - financial and otherwise - and suggests:

The thing is, being a good programmer actually pays pretty well; being acknowledged as being world-class pays even better....So I think I would have missed the opportunity of my lifetime if I had not made Linux widely available [rather than made it proprietary and built a company around it].

So, if you marry the wide adoption of open source with the talents of a Linus Torvalds and the commercial interests of a Red Hat or MySQL you get...a fantastic community, and one that is good for developers, customers, and vendors.

Linus gives particular praise to commercial interests that have made Linux better:

...[T]he 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.

We sometimes forget that the community of developers did a great job on their own, but that it took IBM et al. to truly make Linux relevant to the commercial world. To those developers who suggest that such "relevance" is not important, I say, "Rubbish." Of course it is.

Open source depends on a balance between developer interests and commercial interests. My thesis is that the companies that get this mix best are those that do the best financially.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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