Linus Torvalds On Linux Past, Present and Future
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Saturday, 06 April 2019

The very first issue of Linux Journal carried an interview with Linux creator, Linus Torvalds. To mark the magazine's 25th anniversary, the latest issue has a new interview that is well worth a read.

Both interviews were conducted by Robert Young, one of the founders of Linux Journal who was also a founder of Red Hat, responsible for one of the biggest Linux distributions, and both can be read in full online.

The 1994 interview took place three and a half years after the initial release of Linux. At the time Linus was still studying for his MSc in Computer Science, at the University of Helsinki in his native country Finland, writing his thesis: Linux: A Portable Operating System. This reminds us that Linux started out as more or less a hobby project for use on a personal computer and even the Linux mascot, Tux the penguin, was personal to Linus. 

linux

 

Some of the answers given by Linus in 1994 seem amusing with hindsight:

Linux Journal: Do you see yourself earning a living from your work in Linux in future?

Linus: Well, I do hope and expect to be able to find a job much more easily due to linux, so yes, indirectly at least I hope to be able to make a living off this, even though the work itself might be completely unrelated. As to whether it would actually concern linux itself in some way, I don't know.

As we now know Linus never has had any other job and he and the lead maintainer of the project, Greg Kroah-Hartman, are financially supported by the Linux Foundation, founded in 2000 to provide:

a neutral home where Linux kernel development can be protected and accelerated for years to come.

In his next question Young asks for a best guess of the number of machines running Linux worldwide and the reply goes:

Linus: I actually have no good idea at all: I haven't really followed either the CD-ROM sales or any ftp statistics, so it's rather hard to say. I guesstimate a user base of about 50,000 active users: that may be way off-base, but it doesn't sound too unlikely.  

These days, with Linux running on Android, and many other consumer devices, and on most enterprise and web servers, its number of end users would have to be measured in terms of  billions.

Towards the end of the 1994 exchange comes the big question:

Linux JournalWhat do you see as the future of Linux?

Linus: I rather expect it to remain reasonably close to what it looks like now: the releases may become a bit less frequent as it all stabilizes, but that might just mean that I'll make my snapshots weekly instead of daily as I do now during intense development, and that the “real” releases will happen a couple of times a year instead of monthly or bi-monthly as now.

Similarly, there will probably remain several different “package releases”: some of them will be more or less commercial (currently the Yggdrasil CD-ROM, for example, or the various disk copying services), while others will continue to be mostly electronically distributed by ftp.

At the end of the piece there is discussion of whether Linus could supply a photo of himself and he admits to being camera shy - and the reprint of the article doesn't carry a photo. The one used for the 25th Anniversary interview is one from The Faces of Open Source Project by Peter Adams:

 

linus torvalds openfaces 

The new interview has a much more familiar tone - rather than journalist and interviewee who have never met, this one is between acquaintances who know each other personally as well as professionally. But of course they both remember the original:

Bob: When I first interviewed you back in 1994, did you think that you'd be still maintaining this thing in 2019?

Linus: I think that by 1994 I had already become surprised that my latest project hadn't just been another "do something interesting until it does everything I needed, and then find something else to do" project. Sure, it was fairly early in the development, but it had already been something that I had spent a few years on by then, and had already become something with its own life.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is not that I necessarily expected to do it for another few decades, but that it had already passed the bump of becoming something fairly big in my life. I've never really had a long-term plan for Linux, and I have taken things one day at a time rather than worry about something five or ten years down the line.

Talking about the difference 25 years has made Linus says:

... back in 1994, I was mostly a developer. Sure, I was the lead maintainer, but while I spent a lot of time merging patches, I was also mostly writing my own code. These days I seldom write much code, and the code I write is often pseudo-code or example patches that I send out in emails to the real developers. I'd hesitate to call myself a "manager", because I don't really do things like yearly reviews or budgets, etc. (thank God!), but I definitely am more of a technical lead person than an actual programmer, and that's been true for the last many years.

So the truly big-picture thing hasn't changed, but my role and all the details obviously look very very different from 1994.

And the obvious question comes next:

Bob: Where will you and this code base be in another quarter century?

Linus: Well, I'll be 75 by then, and I doubt I'll be involved day to day. But considering that I've been doing this for almost 30 years, maybe I'd still be following the project.

And the good news is that we really do have a pretty solid developer base, and I'm not worried about "where will Linus be" kind of issues. Sure, people have been talking about how kernel developers are getting older for a long time now, but that's not really because we wouldn't be getting any new people, it's literally because we still have a lot of people around that have been around for a long time, and still enjoy doing it.

I used to think that some radical new and exciting OS would come around and supplant Linux some day (hey, back in 1994 I probably still thought that maybe Hurd would do it!), but it's not just that we've been doing this for a long time and are still doing very well, I've also come to realize that making a new operating system is just way harder than I ever thought. It really takes a lot of effort by a lot of people, and the strength of Linux—and open source in general, of course—is very much that you can build on top of the effort of all those other people.

So unless there is some absolutely enormous shift in the computing landscape, I think Linux will be doing quite well another quarter century from now. Not because of any particular detail of the code itself, but simply fundamentally, because of the development model and the problem space.

I may not be active at that point, and a lot of the code will have been updated and replaced, but I think the project will remain.

Another questions asks about using a "more modern language than C" for the Linux Kernel to which the reply goes:

As to C, nothing better has come around. We've updated the kernel sources for new and improved features (the C language itself has changed during the years we've been doing this), and we've added various extensions on top of C for extra type-checking and runtime verification and hardening, etc., but on the whole, the language is recognizably the same except for small details.

And honestly, it doesn't look likely to change. The kind of languages people see under active development aren't for low-level system programming. They are to make it easier to create user applications with fancy UIs, etc. They explicitly don't want to do things a kernel needs, like low-level manual memory management.

I could imagine that we'd have some "framework" language for generating drivers or similar, and we internally actually have our own simplified "language" just for doing configuration, and we do use a few other languages for the build process, so it's not like C is the only language we use. But it's the bulk of it by far, and it's what the "kernel proper" is written in.

One big change from 25 years ago when Linus Torvald's needed introduction is that now he is a very public figure - and even a change in his travel plans makes news headlines, see Linus Books Wrong Flight So Conference Moves - and his personal style has caused controversy over the years, a topic that isn't dodged in this interview and gives us a change to hear the reformed Linus reflect on why his style had to change:

Bob: Many of us admire your willingness to call a spade a spade in public debates on Linux technology decisions. Others, um, dislike your forthright style of arguing. Do you think you are becoming more or less diplomatic as time has goes on?

Linus: If anything, I think I have become quieter. I wouldn't say "more diplomatic", but perhaps more self-aware, and I'm trying to be less forceful.

Part of it is that people read me a different way from how they used to. It used to be a more free-wheeling environment, and we were a group of geeks having fun and playing around. It's not quite the same environment any more. It's not as personal - for one thing we have thousands of people involved with development now, and that's just counting actual people sending patches, not all the people working around it.

And part of the whole "read me in a different way" is that people take me seriously in a way they didn't do back in 1994. And that's absolutely not some kind of complaint about how I wasn't taken seriously back then - quite the reverse. It's more me grumbling that people take me much too seriously now, and I can't say silly stupid cr*p any more.

So I'll still call out people (and particularly companies) for doing dumb things, but now I have to do it knowing that it's news, and me giving some company the finger will be remembered for a decade afterwards. Whether deserved or not, it might not be worth it.

Elsewhere in the interview, where Linus  expresses his abhorrence of social media, saying that it seems to encourage bad behavior, he has more to say about internet communication and its pitfalls in what he describes as a "rant":

... part of it is something that email shares too, and that I've said before: "On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle". When you're not talking to somebody face to face, and you miss all the normal social cues, it's easy to miss humor and sarcasm, but it's also very easy to overlook the reaction of the recipient, so you get things like flame wars, etc., that might not happen as easily with face-to-face interaction.

But email still works. You still have to put in the effort to write it, and there's generally some actual content (technical or otherwise). The whole "liking" and "sharing" model is just garbage. There is no effort and no quality control. In fact, it's all geared to the reverse of quality control, with lowest common denominator targets, and click-bait, and things designed to generate an emotional response, often one of moral outrage.

Add in anonymity, and it's just disgusting. When you don't even put your real name on your garbage (or the garbage you share or like), it really doesn't help.

I'm actually one of those people who thinks that anonymity is overrated. Some people confuse privacy and anonymity and think they go hand in hand, and that protecting privacy means that you need to protect anonymity. I think that's wrong. Anonymity is important if you're a whistle-blower, but if you cannot prove your identity, your crazy rant on some social-media platform shouldn't be visible, and you shouldn't be able to share it or like it.

Although I've quoted large chunks of both interviews there is still more to read and throughout both Linus Torvalds and Robert (Bob) Young come over as thoroughly nice people you'd enjoy having a conversation with - even though on neither occasion were they conducted face-to-face.

 
Linuxjournal25

More Information

25 Years Later: Interview with Linus Torvalds

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 06 April 2019 )