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Torvalds: Business world boosts Linux

While companies such as Red Hat and VA Linux Systems have generated billions of dollars for their founders and stockholders, the benefits have flowed the other way as well, the founder of Linux says.

NEW YORK--While businesses such as Red Hat and VA Linux Systems have generated billions of dollars for their founders and stockholders, the benefits have flowed the other way as well, the founder of Linux said today.

Linux has been technically strong, but the influence of the business world has forced it to become usable as well, said Linus Torvalds, founder and still leader of the collective effort to develop the operating system, at a keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

"Technologists often forget the general user," Torvalds said. "Technology is only as good as the user experience. That is something that technology groups very often forget." Linux companies aren't just parasites because they make sure much of the "boring" bug-fixing and other maintenance gets done.

However, the involvement of the business community still has major problems--such as the legal tangles between Linux developers who want to use DVD discs and the DVD industry. Software that allows Linux to use DVDs has been developed, but the DVD Copy Control Association and the Motion Picture Association of America have filed suits to block distribution of the software.

"This is a perfect case of companies who want to screw their customers over," Torvalds said today, drawing cheers from the crowd of thousands. The DVD industry "wants to control the market not by being a good technical solution, but by just locking customers into a certain solution."

Torvalds said he hopes "the DVD consortium will lose this lawsuit, and we'll just have DVD on Linux," but if that doesn't happen, he hopes commercial companies will license the appropriate software.

Linux, while still generally more technically challenging than mainstream operating systems such as Windows or MacOS, is becoming easier to use. Though Linux itself is available for free, start-ups and established companies all have plans to make money selling Linux itself, software that runs atop it, hardware that uses it, and support for it.

In the past, development of Linux has been driven by technologists interested more in new features than in having a product that works more reliably than an experimental system. That resulted in a years-long development of the current heart of Linux, version 2.2 of the kernel.

"People didn't want to go through the onerous process of productizing a development kernel," Torvalds said. He resolved to change this process with the next edition of the heart of Linux, the kernel version 2.4.

As soon as Torvalds gets back to his home state of California, he will release the preliminary production versions of 2.4, he said.

The 2.4 kernel is later than Torvalds had hoped. He initially wanted to release it in 1999, but now the new kernel likely will be done by the summer of 2000--an 18-month cycle instead of a 9- to 12-month cycle.

The new version will come with support for desktops as well as high-end servers, Torvalds said.

On the desktop, the new version of Linux will support the Universal Serial Bus (USB), a way to plug in everything from modems and mice to scanners and Zip disks that's on Windows and Macintosh computers. Also coming will be the Firewire high-speed data transfer technology developed initially by Apple. There also will be better support for three-dimensional graphics display, important for games and design software.

At the high end, the new kernel will work well on computers with as many as eight CPUs, he said. And support for Intel's new 64-bit chips is on the way.

Getting trounced by Windows NT on a networking benchmark encouraged the Linux developers to improve Linux so a single processor wouldn't be able to monopolize the network connection or the access to the file system, he said. "We had our asses kicked on certain benchmarks and we didn't want to have that happen again," he said.

Also at the high end, there will be several journaling file systems to choose from by the end of the year, he said. Journaling file systems log changes to files, enabling a computer to recover from a crash more easily; Windows NT and commercial forms of Unix have the feature.

He said it will be for the market to decide which journaling system gets chosen. Right now there are two main contenders, ReiserFS and ext3, an improvement to the current Linux file system, ext2. In addition, SGI and IBM have journaling file system work under way.

Adding to Linux's popularity is its design, which allows various technologies to be added in a modular form, so that companies can choose to use or ignore technologies depending on what type of system they're using.