Irreverent Wit

Dec. 21, 2004
Torvalds brings a breath of fresh air to the computer industry.

"I don't claim to be a missionary. I claim to be an engineer with an idea," says a boyish, bespectacled Linus Torvalds, a 29-year-old whose wit and manner give one the impression he could easily have played Mike Myers' role in the comedy The Spy Who Shagged Me. Although he's no movie star, Torvalds can't seem to stay out of the limelight. He was in the news last month when Transmeta Corp., the Santa Clara, Calif.-based firm he works with, unveiled a new family of computer chips that simplifies processing and uses one fifth the power of an Intel chip. Torvalds, who looks young enough to be the guy who comes to your house to date your teenage daughter, eschews any and all things corporate. One of his trademark characteristics is an irreverent, puckish wit -- a breath of fresh air for a computer industry that often puts on trade shows where golf and noncomputer industry speakers are the chief attractions. Responding to a questioner at the Linux World show last summer who wanted to know if he was aiming to capture a particular market, Torvalds responded, "I personally haven't tried to capture anybody at all." Asked later if he thought he could steer the growth of Linux into various markets, Torvalds replied, "I never got the crazy notion that I could try to steer it at all . . . ." And regarding the latest Linux version, 2.2.11, Torvalds commented wryly, "I sprinkled holy penguin pee on it and blessed the release." At the recent Comdex/Fall trade show in Las Vegas, which originally was to have been the venue for Microsoft's Windows 2000 launch, a group of TurboLinux parachuting "penguins" landed and then crashed through a Monopoly game board. Regarding the penguin logo, Torvalds says it was his wife's idea. "We wanted to find something friendly and not too serious. I was bitten by one in Australia once and I got penguin 'disease.' But we didn't test the penguin logo -- it just works." The other thing that has worked is the concept of open-source software. Speaking to his thousands of devotees at Linux World, Torvalds made no bones about their role as the keepers of the core Linux system. "You guys out there are the testers," he said. He believes in a process of peer review, that is, testing among a large base of users. As he says, "There is no choice but to trust people." Torvalds has pledged that Linux will soon be adapted for mobile Internet devices. As such, it will go head-to-head with Windows CE. Torvalds also has big designs on the desktop computing environment. "I still see the desktop as the most interesting market," he says.

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