FEATURES & COMMENTARY
San Diego, CA — A major new release of the Linux operating system will be available in the fall, and will offer significant performance improvements over the current version, according to Linus Torvalds, overseer of the Linux movement.
But Mr. Torvalds also said that, for all its recent advances, it will be many years before Linux appeals to the masses in the same way that Microsoft Corp.’s Windows or Apple Computer Inc.’s Macintosh software do. Indeed, he said neither his parents nor his sister use Linux, but prefer Windows-based or Macintosh computers.
The normally inaccessible Mr. Torvalds spoke in an interview at a Linux trade show in San Jose, Calif. As a student in his native Finland a decade earlier, he created the basic components of the Linux operating system, then put it on the Internet to let others make improvements to it.
Today, Mr. Torvalds, 30 years old, works for a Silicon Valley semiconductor firm, though he spends much of his time coordinating the global network of volunteer Linux programmers.
Meanwhile, his creation has become so popular with programmers that it represents one of the most serious competitive threats to Microsoft’s influence on the software industry.
The new version of Linux, the first in a year and a half, will be available in two or three months, Mr. Torvalds said, many months later than he had initially planned on releasing it.
He said the new version of Linux will run better on high-end computers, such as those containing more than one processor. Mr. Torvalds said tests show the new Linux compares “really well” with its rivals, including Windows and other versions of Unix. “It is painful for me to go back and use the 2.2 kernel,” he said, referring to the current version.
Mr. Torvalds said, though, that outside of Linux’s home base of technically minded computer users, Windows still has a formidable advantage over Linux: There are simply far more programs that run on Windows.
“Windows is still a no-brainer for most people,” he said, adding it will take Linux “perhaps five or 10 years” to catch up, at least for home-computer users. But he said average business users might move to Linux sooner, perhaps by next year.
Mr. Torvalds described last year as a watershed for Linux, because of the growing interest in the software from big companies such as International Business Machines Corp., as well as because of the successful public offerings of Linux-only companies such as Red Hat Inc.
What’s more, Microsoft last year began to take notice of Linux. In the spring, for example, it released a study showing that Windows NT outperformed Linux in some common computing tasks.
The study caused an uproar in the Linux camp, with Mr. Torvalds and others suggesting at the time that they had somehow been rigged. Subsequent tests, though, showed Microsoft was right, and in his interview, Mr. Torvalds conceded that he initially had been “in denial” on the matter.
“We had been arrogant,” he said, adding it was painful for him to admit that Windows was better than Linux, at least in the areas covered by the Microsoft test.
But he said the episode ended up being “very motivational to us,” since it forced Linux developers to go back and fix the bottlenecks that caused Linux to lose to Windows in the first place.
The Linux movement has made the founders of some Linux concerns vastly wealthy, even while the stock of Linux companies has fallen sharply from their initial highs.
Mr. Torvalds has benefited from that boom by virtue of having received “friends and family” stock in a number of Linux firms. As a result, he said he is a millionaire now – hardly an epic accomplishment in Silicon Valley these days – though just barely. He said he also is availing himself of some of the advantages of good fortune, such as buying a house for himself, his wife and two young daughters, as well as trading in his old Pontiac for a sporty BMW Z3. His fortunes may swell in coming months, as his employer, Transmeta Corp., filed to go public.
Mr. Torvalds coordinates Linux in a somewhat detached manner. He concerns himself only with intricate, technical details of Linux, and won’t take a stand on such issues as what sort of user interface the software should have.
That is one reason there are two rival Linux interfaces. Mr. Torvalds also has no support staff; in fact, he doesn’t even have a secretary.
Mr. Torvalds defended his habits. He said, for example, that not selecting an “official” Linux user interface allows the best one to emerge through competition. He also said that, by not having a staff, he can ignore the sorts of routine administrative details that would bog him down.
He said he believes many matters are better handled by specialized Linux companies like Red Hat.
On other matters, Mr. Torvalds said some action should be taken against Microsoft in the current antitrust case, but added he is against the Justice Department’s proposed division of Microsoft into an operating-system concern and an applications company.
He said more competition would be created by spliting Microsoft into two or three “Baby Bills,” each of which would sell the same products.
He also said the increasing commercialization of Linux doesn’t concern him, since “I don’t worry anymore about people being able to control Linux with money.” He also said big corporations such as IBM are now as much a part of the “Linux community” as the archetypal Linux hacker, and that they should make the Linux-related moves they want to without being unduly concerned about what he or others might think of them. “Linux is much less homogeneous now than it was a few years ago,” he said.