The Legacy of Linus Torvalds: Linux, Git, and One Giant Flamethrower

November 21, 2012

Linus Torvalds created Linux, which now runs vast swathes of the Internet, including Google and Facebook. And he invented Git, software that’s now used by developers across the net to build new applications of all kinds. But that’s not all Torvalds has given the Internet.

He’s also started some serious flame wars.

Over the past few years, Torvalds has emerged as one of the most articulate and engaging critics of the technology industry. His funny and plainspoken posts to Google+ routinely generate more comments and attention than most stories on The New York Times — or even Wired.

Linus, you see, has the gift for the geek gab. Some of his gems — “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” — are the stuff of T-shirt slogans. Others — such as his portrait of the hard drive as the new Satan or the F-bomb he dropped on Nvidia, “the single worst company” the Linux developer community has ever dealt with — have a certain knack for keeping marketing people up at night.

Torvalds can say what he wants because — unlike most of the world’s best-known software developers — he doesn’t work for a big technology company with a public relations department. If he worked for IBM or Red Hat, he’d probably be clamped down. But Torvalds is a free operator, his salary paid by the non-profit Linux Foundation. So whenever he needs a break from code-wrangling the Linux project, he fires away on Google+. It’s the same honest attitude that turned Linux into such a success story.

Earlier this year, Torvalds joined luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Van Jacobsen as an inductee to the Internet Society’s (ISOC) Internet Hall of Fame. It only make sense. Today, Linux is not only part of the genetic material of the internet, it powers the millions of Android phones that people use to access it. And GitHub — based on his Git software — has reinvented the art of collaborative software development, not to mention the social network.

But when we told Torvalds that we wanted to profile him in honor of his induction into the Internet Hall of Fame, his other contribution to Internet life appeared in all its glory.

At first, he blew us off. Torvalds is entering that middle-aged period of his life where he’s suddenly one of the guys who gets honored in international awards ceremonies. And though he didn’t say so, we got the sense that he wasn’t into pontificating about the role of Linux in the Internet.

So we gently trolled him over his use of Google+.

“Why are you the only person of interest on Google+?” we asked, not so innocently.

“Christ, that may be the saddest sentence ever on the Internet,” Torvalds fired back. “The fact that I’m not very politically correct (in fact, I find people who get ‘offended’ to be annoying twits), and get grumpy and public about it isn’t all that interesting. I actually think that I’m a rather optimistic and happy person, it’s just that I’m not a very positive person, if you see the difference.

“So I rant a bit on G+ and the comments can be fun to watch (in a sad, sad way), but ‘only person of interest’ means that your editor may want to expand his circles a bit.”

Soon, we’re having a very interesting back-and-forth about people who are easily offended, euthanasia, and a favorite topic: the misdeeds of security industry and security researchers who become famous by uncovering the mistakes that people like Torvalds have missed.

As you might have guessed, he’s a critic. “[T]hey start off with a sane and obvious premise (‘security is important’) and then push it beyond all recognition (‘security matters more than anything else’), and use fear-mongering as their main way to push their agenda,” he said.

By then, he was on a roll.

“The economics of the security world are all horribly horribly nasty, and are largely based on fear, intimidation and blackmail. It’s why I compared them to the TSA — even when you know there are morons that didn’t finish high school and are stealing camera equipment and harassing people with ridiculous rules, you can’t actually speak up against them because there’s no recourse.”

A serious roll.

“I’m occasionally impressed by the things some of the people do — especially the people finding some really obscure way to take some innocent-looking bug and turn it into an exploit — but then in order to take advantage of their discovery they have to take that really interesting intellectual exercise and turn it into this really sordid affair. It’s either some (very) thinly veiled blackmail behind some ‘best security practices’ bullshit, or it’s a carefully orchestrated PR event with the timing set so that they look important and interesting.”

Then he slammed people like us in the tech press for eating it all up and turning everything into a “big circus.”

It was great.

The thing is, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting Torvalds, he’s not some raging maniac. He’s mild-mannered and friendly. His candor is wonderfully endearing. You might think differently of his slightly grumpy online writings, but they’re really rather insightful, and we think they’re fun too — even if he’s comparing us to clowns.

His attitude has served Linux well. While its main competitor — Microsoft’s Windows operating system — has stumbled, Linux has triumphed, making all the right moves — or at least most of them — over the past two decades. It’s managed to grow up on the Internet by fostering an online community — thousands of developers strong — where people worry much more about the technical merits of an argument than someone’s marketing plan.

All in all, it’s an unlikely success story.

In the summer of 1991, Linus Torvalds was a University of Helsinki student living with his mom. Months earlier, he’d bought a $3,500 generic gray block of a computer. It was a 33-megahertz Intel system with 4 megabytes of RAM. And after Torvalds had installed the 16 floppy drives that comprised the Minix operating system — an early version of Unix for Intel machines — onto this computer, the young hacker was certain that there was room for improvement.

He started poking around, reading obscure Unix documentation manuals, writing little pieces of software that gave Minix a boost. Then, on Aug. 25, he posted a now-legendary note to the Internet’s Minux newsgroup: “Hello everybody out there using minix — I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones,” he wrote “I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat.”

And the revolution was born.

Today, you can’t imagine the Internet without Linux — or Linus. It’s hard to describe how “omnipresent” the Linux kernel is at Google, says Chris DiBona, Google’s director of open source. “Google uses a ton of open source software but no single project has had the impact that the kernel has,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Since our first days at Stanford, it has run on every server and most of our internal infrastructure. If you look back to the earliest days of Android, there was never really a question as to which kernel would be best for our use.”

DiBona likes Linux, but he enjoys the flames too. “Linus has a remarkable talent for getting his point across, which I find refreshing in an age of massaged milquetoast technology spokespeople,” he said.

Written by Wired's Robert McMillan, this article is the twenty-seventh piece in an ongoing series by Wired magazine on the 2012 Internet Hall of Fame inductees.

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