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Linux founder: User needs shaping new era

"The technology is not driving the market any more. What people want is driving it," Linus Torvalds tells a trade show audience, while also hinting at the doings of secretive chipmaker Transmeta.

LAS VEGAS--Linux is moving into a different era, a time when the future of the operating system software will be driven by user needs instead of programmers' curiosity, the movement's founder said today.

"The technology is not driving the market anymore. What people want is driving it," Linus Torvalds said in a well-attended speech here.

"The iMac comes in five colors. Who cares from a technical standpoint? But they're obviously selling like crazy," said Torvalds, who launched the Linux programming effort in 1991 while a student in Finland.

Separately, Torvalds offered some insight into Transmeta, the secretive chipmaking company where he works. Transmeta plans a full disclosure of its activities on January 19, 2000, he said, but to tide people over Torvalds revealed Transmeta is working on a "smart CPU, the first microprocessor built with software" running as an integral component. CPU stands for central processing unit.

In an indication of how far Linux has come since its unveiling, Torvalds addressed a crowd of about 7,000 at a keynote address at Comdex, the world's largest computer trade show. A special section is dedicated to the Unix-like software.

Linux's development began as an "open source" project that was merely fun for programmers who liked to share the original programming instructions, or source code. That's changing with the commercialization of Linux, but the open-source model still functions well, Torvalds said.

"Being open was what made the PC market so successful in the first place," he said. "By making it available on the Internet, everyone can play. That's just so much more fun and interesting for programmers."

Open-source programming is sufficiently flexible to keep even very complex projects improving because individuals will take charge over different sections, Torvalds said. "Top-down decision-making," where a few people control a project, doesn't work well with large projects such as operating systems, he said.

On the down side, Linux's upgrade schedule--which never is etched in stone--has slipped a little in the last few months. In a keynote at a Linux conference in August, Torvalds said he hoped to have the next edition of the Linux kernel, version 2.4, out by 2000. Now he's hoping for early 2000, he said.

One of the big improvements coming to Linux in the next kernel will be the ability to take advantage of all the chips in an eight-processor system, Torvalds said. In addition, some aspects of the heart of Linux have been changed so as to improve performance in tests such as those run by the Mindcraft lab, which showed Windows NT to score higher in some areas such as delivering Web pages.

"While I was upset about Mindcraft for awhile, I took it as a more positive thing after I got past the personal injury to my pride," Torvalds said. "We just delved into it and fixed it. We took this benchmark as a way of saying, 'Yes, Linux is not the best at everything.' We fixed the area, and as a result, Linux is doing extremely well on those kind of benchmarks."

A peek at Transmeta
Torvalds's description of Transmeta jibes with what has been found by scouring through the company's patents. Transmeta has been awarded patents for processes that use software to translate instructions intended for one type of chip--Transmeta uses Intel chips as an example--but that then can be run on Transmeta's own chip.

Transmeta has updated its Web site slightly but hasn't deviated from its practice of using a cryptic message to generate buzz while still being uninformative. Until recently it said only, "This page is not here yet;" and now just says one word, "Crusoe."

Desktop computers: the Linux Achilles heel
Returning to software, the saddest part of the Linux project is its continuing failure to win a firm place on the desktops of average users, Torvalds said.

"It's clearly the most strategic area. That is what people see daily, and that's what people associate with computers. But it's also the hardest [area] to enter," he said, predicting Linux still is a good distance away from that ultimate goal.

Software maker Corel is aiming to win over the inexperienced desktop user in debuting its first version of Linux. Linux still is getting better in the area, in particular with the increasingly polished graphical user interfaces from Gnome and KDE, Torvalds said. The operating system "clearly is rivaling all the desktops out there. Still, people see LInux and Unix as fairly hard to use, which historically has been true."

Linux is still more likely to be incorporated into gadgets, the machines that usually don't let users delve into the nitty-gritty of the operating system, Torvalds said.

Wireless devices in connected to the Internet in particular are a huge opportunity. Such devices usually have tighter memory constraints than desktop computers, but Torvalds predicted that Linux-based cell phones will become available. Red Hat chairman Bob Young said earlier today that Finnish cell phone manufacturer Nokia is working on just such a project.

In defense of Mozilla
Casting his eye elsewhere, Torvalds said that Netscape, the first commercial attempt at making open-source programming work, is showing signs of commercial viability. The company's Mozilla effort was initially criticized when it attracted few outside developers.

"Netscape got a bad rap for the failure of Mozilla," Torvalds said.

On Microsoft's trail
Torvalds steadfastly maintains the challenge and excitement of producing a operating system--not competition with Microsoft--is what motivates Linux developers. But he couldn't resist a few jabs at the software giant.

"I was going to start with a lawyer joke, but I'm told that was done yesterday," Torvalds said, referring to Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates's Sunday quip regarding U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's finding that Microsoft is a monopoly.

"People see Linux as anti-Microsoft. In the press it looks that way," Torvalds said. "But to me and all the developers I know, it's not me vs. Microsoft." It's a matter of a fun programming project, he said.

That view contrasts strongly with that of Red Hat cofounder Marc Ewing, who has said competition with Microsoft is what fires his company's kiln.

It would be interesting if the federal government forced Microsoft to open the source code of Windows as a remedy in the antitrust trial against Microsoft, Torvalds said, but he doesn't see it as a likely outcome for years given the protracted legal proceedings.

"I think it would be a very positive thing. I'll bet there would be a lot of cross-pollination. But I don't think that's going to happen in the near future," he said.