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Linux future includes handhelds too

Linux is moving into high-powered, multiprocessor systems and supercomputers, but founder Linus Torvalds says developers must also focus on smaller, less glamorous systems.

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--Linux is squarely aimed at moving into the lofty realms of high-powered, multiprocessor systems and supercomputers, but Linux founder Linus Torvalds today said developers must also focus on smaller, less glamorous systems.

Addressing the LinuxWorld Expo and Conference here, Torvalds outlined a future that ironically resembles Microsoft's plans for its Windows operating system. Moving an operating system from ordinary desktop computers into both heavy-duty machines and small devices is precisely what Microsoft has been trying to do with its Windows NT and Windows CE software.

Linux's open source nature, which exposes the original programming instructions for anybody to tailor to specific tasks, means the operating system can be tuned for use in tiny computers like personal digital assistants, as well as the corporate systems where it's been making increasing inroads .

"It's up there with the big boys, and the big boys are nervous," Torvalds told the audience, many of whom have enjoyed taking potshots at the Redmond, Washington, software giant.

Torvalds, who in a way could himself be considered the kernel of Linux, received a standing ovation even before he began speaking. Some of the more eager devotees had sprinted into the auditorium before his keynote address, and the 4,000-seat main auditorium filled quickly.

Earlier, groupies seeking autographed T-shirts surrounded Torvalds when he made an earlier appearance among the exhibits. Estimates pegged the first-day's conference attendance at between 8,000 and 10,000.

True to his programming roots, Torvalds touted the advantages of the new version of the heart of Linux--but argued at the same time that no one should be forced to upgrade perfectly good systems if they don't want to.

Version 2.0 of the Linux kernel lasted two and a half years before Torvalds released version 2.2, but that doesn't make the older version obsolete. "You shouldn't be in this endless maze of new versions that you have to upgrade just in order to run your programs," he said.

Torvalds will remain devoted to the development of the kernel, but much Linux activity in the next year will focus on higher-level software such as the graphical user interface that lies atop the hardware or the office suites of programs such as word processors, he said.

"The excitement tends to be in the user space. I don't expect to be out of work in the kernel, but for the future, the kernel is just a base for all the other work," Torvalds said.

The new version 2.2 of the Linux kernel, now updated with two patches, is just starting to be accepted, Torvalds said. It comes with better support for multiprocessor systems, a file system that speeds up Web servers, and a better foundation for moving the operating system from one chip to another, he said. Version 2.2 should last another two or three years, he predicted.

Amid the Linux hype, though, some spoke of problems in Linux's future

While Microsoft and Unix vendors will suffer losses at the hands of Linux, bringing Linux to the corporate realm is likely to raise the hackles of Linux developers, said Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies.

Dwight said some of the low-hanging fruit of Linux development already has been plucked, and more difficult issues will crop up in the long term. For example, there's "minimizing the culture clash as commercial interests look to cash in on the efforts of the idealistic, open source community. Will the hundreds of developers who improved Linux just for the challenge and fun of it continue to do so if they think of themselves as free labor for Oracle or Hewlett-Packard?", Davis asked.

Other hurdles include providing a road map of future enhancements, proving that the Linux's open source foundation works in a for-profit world, addressing legal issues about the licensing terms of Linux software, and the difficulties of creating and testing increasingly complex software.

Though Torvalds acknowledged Linux isn't yet as crash-proof as the top-end versions of Unix, he showed no shortage of confidence in the operating system whose development he shepherded: One slide from his talk read: "World domination. It's just the first step."

Torvalds showed another slide which illustrated the number of Linux users growing nearly ten-fold each year. When he first showed the slide three years ago, "It was meant to be a joke, but very few people are laughing now," he said.

"According to this slide, we'll be the biggest operating system on the planet, and I like that," he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.