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Torvalds: Linux is fun

Linux is successful because it's the product of programmers looking for entertainment and society rather than money, founder Linus Torvalds tells a panel.

BERKELEY, California--Linux has been successful because it's the product of programmers looking for entertainment and society rather than money, Linux founder Linus Torvalds said today.

Taking a crack at sociology during a University of California-Berkeley panel discussion, Torvalds said civilization has developed to the point where survival is often taken is taken for granted. Consequently, "if you're not interested in doing something, you probably won't do it. You'll take a job that doesn't pay as well because it's more interesting," Torvalds said.

That shifting motivation lies behind the success of the Linux operating system, he said. Linux, which is developed by thousands of programmers under the "open source" model, has harnessed the energy of people looking for a good challenge and the company of other programmers.

A product constructed that way "takes the marketplace by storm, because it's so much better made than what the traditional market would have been able to do," Torvalds said.

Among others speaking at the conference today was Pamela Samuelson, a law professor and codirector of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. Holding Torvalds up as an example of what a single person can accomplish, she urged the audience to work to achieve the Internet future they want instead of leaving the political influence to corporations.

Torvalds began developing Linux, a Unix-like operating system, in 1991. Since its earliest days, he has released the original programming instructions to whoever wants to see and modify them.

Torvalds, who's become successful because of his technological prowess, said he believes people drive technology, not vice versa.

Money isn't necessarily all that motivates a person these days, he said, but it is a critical part of the picture. "I actually think money is maybe the most fundamental idea that humanity" has come up with, he said. It's a "universal bartering tool" that allows a person to concentrate on saving up for the future.

"People say money doesn't buy you happiness, but those people are usually people who don't have enough of it," Torvalds quipped.

In the future, people will be motivated increasingly by entertainment, he predicted, noting that entertainment encompasses not only frivolous activities like playing video games, but also serious endeavors like going to the moon. "It may not be in 5 or 50 years, but in 150 years, we will be living in an entertainment society" where the most highly sought-after activity is something that keeps the boredom away, he said.

For her part, Samuelson pointed to the Communications Decency Act and the Clipper chip as examples of the government's coming up with ideas that didn't sit well with the wired world's libertarian principles.

However, she said, "I think regulation is something that not only is a reality, but may be something to be desired."

For example, she said, people need to know whether a contract signed in cyberspace has teeth to it.

But regulating the Internet realm isn't easy. For one thing, governmental agencies have to grapple with whether the Net's facets are analogous to existing technologies such as print or broadcast media, or whether new legislation must be written from scratch.

And the Internet is a moving target. "We don't know what e-commerce is really going to be," she said. "The things we put in place have got to be things we can visit again."

Congress, by comparison, expects a law to apply for 50 years, she pointed out.

Samuelson also called for more attention to privacy issues. "[Sun chief executive] Scott McNealy has said 'There is no privacy. Get over it.' My response is, 'Sorry, Scott, that's not good enough.'"

The European Union has some good examples of privacy law that emphasize personal privacy and consumer protection, she said. "They may have overdone it, but at least they're trying," she said.