"Within the last year, it's progressed past the eye-candy stage," he said during a panel discussion at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here, praising the KDE user interface and higher-level applications such as KOffice.
Torvalds in January released version 2.4 of the Linux kernel, or technical heart, but that's not the most significant part of Linux overall, he said.
"I don't think the kernel matters anymore," he said. "For most applications, the kernel is good enough."
But Jeremy Allison, leader of the open-source Samba software project that lets Linux servers store files on Windows networks, disagreed. "The 2.4 kernel is the most significant thing," he said, citing performance improvements for tasks such as networking. "It has been the engine driving Linux into large corporations."
Other luminaries had their own opinions of the most significant events in the open-source world. Progress to standardize Linux was the choice of Dirk Hohndel, former chief technology officer of German Linux seller SuSE and a core member of the Xfree86 graphics system.
Brian Behlendorf, a founder of the Apache Web server software project, said Microsoft's recognition of the threat of open-source software--and its response--topped the list.
Microsoft favors a proprietary approach to software, which contrasts sharply with the freedom to share, redistribute and modify software the open-source philosophy permits. Microsoft has launched a campaign to undermine the General Public License (GPL) that governs much open-source software.
The panelists disagreed--often adamantly--on some other points. While Allison and Torvalds said open-source software will emerge victorious in the long run, Hohndel and Behlendorf differed.
"Open-source in the end tends to win out. It's the way for the rest of the world to compete" against corporate interests, Torvalds said. "How is any company going to compete against the rest of the world?"
Behlendorf noted that despite a wealth of office applications on the market, most people still use Microsoft Word. And Hohndel argued that "plenty of software will remain closed, proprietary."
The participants also disagreed on what motivates and should motivate open-source programmers. For Torvalds, the process is all about individuals fixing problems they see.
"You should not ask what other people want. You should ask what you need and just do it," Torvalds said. "Even completely clueless people can do things. When some complete idiot sends a patch to the Linux kernel, other people will look at that patch, say, 'That's really stupid,' and they'll fix it."
Hohndel, though, sees a benefit to paying attention to others' needs. "Listen to the customers," he said.
On another note, Behlendorf warned that he believes Microsoft is trying to become an unavoidable part of the Internet through its Passport service used to authenticate people's passwords and store their personal data. The company then will essentially charge an Internet tax, he predicted.
Torvalds disagreed. "Assume Microsoft taxed every transaction on the Internet. The U.S. government isn't willing to give up its monopoly status as the taxation man. Governments...would step in and say, 'No, no, you don't tax people; we tax people.'"