Torvalds, employed by the top-secret start-up Transmeta, addressed several hundred attendees at the Internet World trade show today at a forum focused on the role of the Linux operating system in businesses. But his remarks covered a wide spectrum of topics, including the open-source operating system and his role in nurturing it.
In an open-source project, software developers contribute code and fixes, often voluntarily. Typically, the resulting product is available to anyone for free, licensed use. Usually, a technical lead--in this case Torvalds--is responsible for managing the contributions.
Torvalds predicted a future in which the market for what he called "standard blocks" of software, such as the operating system or the windowing system, will eventually dwindle.
"What will drive the software industry is special software for special needs," Torvalds said. "Software companies make money off of personalization, ways for users to get their own Web interface."
Bigger is not better
Torvalds reserved some of his tartest comments for the open-source efforts of big corporations, including that of America Online's Netscape unit and a potential open-source project by Microsoft.
"Some people think that open source automatically means the result is better," Torvalds said. "That's not true. It means you have the potential to take advantage of a much more scalable way of doing development. It does not mean that you will, or that it will lead you in the right direction."
"Netscape is an example of one that did not get the interaction going between the outside world and the Mozilla project. Yes, it became open source, but to some degree it never took off like they hoped for."
Mozilla.org is the group set up by Netscape Communications the year before its acquisition by America Online to shepherd the open-source development of the Communicator Web browser.
"Open source not the answer to world hunger," Torvalds quipped.
Much of the day's panel discussions of Linux and open-source development came back to the theme that the open-source model is appropriate and successful in some instances but not in others. One point Torvalds stressed was that open-source projects are more likely to succeed if their developers are users of the software.
As for the possibility that Microsoft might put a development project into open source, Torvalds said: "Talk is cheap. I would be more than happy to see more and more people open up their source." But such a project by Microsoft is not likely, he said.
The abuse of "open"
He did disparage the expanding role and meaning of the term "open source" as used by corporations.
"There is a history of misusing 'open' as a marketing term," he said. "To me 'open' means more than just being able to look at stuff. A window is not open just because you can see through it. Definition of open is that you can enter it and start playing with it and make your own decisions, and you don't have to ask permission to start doing stuff."
That jab applied to Sun Microsystems, which has made Java and several other software projects partly open through its Community Source License, which still leaves Sun in firm control of the software.
Torvalds expressed no regrets about the recent commercial craze over Linux.
"Do I mind people coming in and using Linux to make a buck? Hell no," he said. "I want commercial people to come in and open those doors so I can work on what I really enjoy, which is the technical side."
Torvalds downplayed his own role in the success of Linux.
"I'm not as central as the name makes me seem," he said. "I'm still the technical lead for the kernel, and the technical lead makes sure product works well and comes out on time. But more important are the management structure and having a lot of good people working on the project."