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Defining the limits of open source

Linux creator Linus Torvalds may be the best-known success of the open source programming movement, but he believes proprietary software still has a place.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN JOSE, California-- Say it ain't so, Linus.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds may be the best-known success of the open source programming movement, but he believes proprietary software still has a place.

"There's a lot of power in combining the notion of having open source and having traditional proprietary software and letting everybody live the way they want to live," Torvalds said during a panel discussion yesterday at the LinuxWorld Expo here.

"Getting into whether you're proprietary or not is a waste of time."

With open source software, anyone is free to modify and redistribute the original programming code without worrying about things like signing patent licensing agreements. Hundreds of voluntary programmers across the Internet, led by Torvalds, have been collectively responsible for the development of Linux, an operating system now being embraced by big-name computing companies.

Speaking before an audience packed with open source advocates, Torvalds said he releases all his Linux software as open source. "But at the same time, I enjoy working at a commercial company, and the work I do is going to be very much a commercial software that nobody plays around with," he said. Torvalds is an employee at Transmeta, a highly secretive Silicon Valley company.

However, not everyone on the panel concurred with Torvalds' acceptance of proprietary technology. In particular, Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU effort to create a free version of Unix--free in the sense of being unshackled by proprietary restraints. Stallman also is founder of the Free Software Foundation.

Because of industry secrets and patents, it may not be possible in five years to run a computer with the GNU/Linux operating system, Stallman said. He also expressed concern that the major Linux distributors all include "non-free software."

The core code of Linux is distributed under the GNU general public license, which guarantees programmers the right to modify and redistribute the software however they want, so long as their changes also are distributed under the general public license.

Stallman and Torvalds came somewhat closer to agreement in their mutual desire for changes to loosen patent law in the United States.

Existing patent law is a problem both for the open source movement and for proprietary companies as well, Torvalds said. "Something should be done to try to make changes to the patent system," perhaps by not granting them in the first place or by allowing other companies to use the information despite the patents, he said.

The remarks are intriguing in light of the fact that the first public glimpse of Torvalds' company, Transmeta, came in November, when the company was awarded a patent for combination chip-software technology that would enable high-speed emulation of other chips.

Other open source luminaries in the discussion were Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language, Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, and moderator Eric Raymond, author of the open source manifesto " The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

The panel discussion often took on moral tones. Though Stallman sometimes elicited groans from the audience with his contentious tone, he received a standing ovation from the audience after panel moderator Raymond remarked, "If it weren't for Richard Stallman, probably none of us would be here today."

Torvalds adopted the moral high ground himself. "Anybody who tries to force his views on anybody else is not being ethical," he said. "You don't want to get in an argument. You want to show them the better way and they will follow."

The discussion also roamed on to the topic of providing a polished graphical user interface for Linux--an effort Stallman and GNU strongly back with the Gnome project, which this week released its version 1.0 project. A graphical user interface is essential for more widespread adoption of Linux by less technical users.

Torvalds, however, cautioned Linux enthusiasts to be aware of limits on computer technology.

"Regardless of how easy we're going to make a Linux install, it's still going to be a basic fact of life that people are afraid of computers," Torvalds said. "People still don't like doing operating system installs. It's like doing brain surgery on yourself."