Torvalds breaks down Linux

Linux creator says companies that want to participate must build trust through actions, not words.

Linux development is more like a social network built on trusted relationships and less like a democratic community of individuals dedicated to a single development process, according to Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

“I have a policy that he who does the code gets to decide,” said Torvalds, the Linux project coordinator who has written approximately 2% of the Linux code since creating the operating system in 1990.

Torvalds made his comments during a two-part interview with Jim Zemlin, CEO of the Linux Foundation. Torvalds is a Fellow at the foundation, which funds his work. He can be heard in his own words via podcast on the Linux Foundation Web site. Part 2 of the interview will be posted in early February.

Torvalds also said GPLv2 remains his open source license of choice for the Linux kernel and that he would remain pragmatic on future decisions but that stance would not blind him to investigating GPLv3 under specific circumstances. He said trust is the fuel that energizing the Linux development process and commercial vendors can only establish that trust via actions not words.

Torvalds said the mythical “Linux community” does not refer to one big happy open source family, but that the development process is made up a many groups some with different ideals and goals.

“But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is actual code and the technology itself,” Torvalds said. People unwilling to step up don’t have a voice when all is said and done, he said.

Torvalds also expounded on the notion that he doesn’t see Linux as part of a greater cause.

“To other people it is,” he said. “I mean, it’s actually one of the things I found to be interesting is how people use Linux in ways that I didn’t start out designing it for and sometimes use it for things that I really don’t care about personally that much.”

Torvalds said working on Linux is still fun and that he is now motivated by the social aspects of his work as well as the technological challenges.

“[Technology] is still a large part of it, but largely it’s also now just the social side.

So, it’s just a lot of fun working with people; even though, I mean, I sit in my basement all day long and actually don’t meet anybody at all, but what I do is essentially communicate and it is very social.”

But Torvalds understands the important position Linux occupies in the industry and all the different directions the open source operating system is moving, including expansion to mobile and embedded devices and commercial vendor interest.

He said companies and individuals have to build trust.

“What happens is people know,” Torvalds said. “They’ve seen other people do work over the last months or years, in some cases decades, and they know that, ‘OK, I can trust this person. When he sends me a patch, it’s probably the right thing to do even if I don’t understand quite why’ and you kind of build up this network.”

The network could be classified as the forerunner to today’s popular social networking models used across the Internet.

“Some people just have more connections than other people have. Reports tend to move along the edges from the originator through all the people who have the most connections,” he said.

In terms of licensing, which has been a hot topic since the GPLv3 was introduced last year, Torvalds says he will remain pragmatic. He says GPLv3 and GPLv2 point to the philosophical differences between open source and Linux on one side and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) on the other.

“The GPL Version 3 reflects the FSF’s goals and the GPL Version 2 pretty closely matches what I think a license should do and so right now Version 2 is where the kernel is. Could there be something that happens to change that? Maybe,” he said.

“One of the few reasons I see why Version 3 might be useful is simply there ends up being tons of external code that we feel is really important and worthwhile that is under the Version 3 license. And then, in order to avoid the licensing compatibility, we – I suspect I could see the kernel people saying, ‘OK, we’ll re-license to Version 3 not because we think it’s the better license, but because it opens up code to us,” Torvalds said.

He said the model of kernel development has not changed in over the last decade and is not formally governed by a set of rules.

“[One of my favorite theories] is that the whole organization doesn’t really exist and that it’s largely self-organizing,” he said.

The level of commitment and responsibility is the one change that does stick out, he added.

“The people involved have certainly been involved longer and are, perhaps, more aware of just how much they can screw up and care about it more,” he said. “And we don’t have quite the amount of freedom anymore, we can’t just take completely experimental code and say, ‘Hey, let’s see how this works out.’ ”

Torvalds said Linux participation remains largely in Western Europe and the United States, but it's not apathy that excludes others but connectivity, language and cultural barriers.

He said he expects embedded and mobile devices to have the greatest impact on Linux in the near future, and the issue with mobile devices is the interfaces.

“It makes more a difference that the way you connect to a mobile phone is different from the way you connect to a desktop. You have a very limited keyboard, you have touch screen issues, you have a very small screen,” he said.

He also said the popularity around Linux is changing attitudes around device drivers, but that Linux still does not have the kind of support he wishes it had.

“It used to be that very few hardware manufacturers really actively tried to help Linux people write drivers. And now, at least, I’m personally getting the feeling that the companies that don’t try to help, at least with documentation and sometimes even with writing drivers themselves, are starting to even be a minority.”

Learn more about this topic

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