Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux, effortlessly upstaged Bill Gates on the opening day of Comdex/Spring in Chicago yesterday.
Torvald's speech was not listed as one of the four official keynotes, which included Bill Gates, SGI chairman Rick Belluzzo and Cybercash's William Melton. And he was relegated to a much smaller auditorium, an odd snub to the man at the centre of arguably the biggest shift in the IT landscape this year: the meteoric rise of Linux and of the Open Source software model.
Those who did manage to squeeze into the undersized auditorium, heard Torvalds discuss the Linux revolution in his typical unassuming style. He used most of his one hour talk to answer questions from the audience.
Torvalds explanation for Linux' success: "The reason Linux initially succeeded, was that there was a ton of brainpower on the Internet and nothing for it to focus on. That thing became Linux."
He added that one key success factor was the operating system's modular nature, that allows many development teams to work on different aspects of the operating system with surprisingly little coordination.
"People are sometimes surprised by how little I know about [certain parts of Linux], and how little I care," said Torvalds. He added: "As a kernel developer, I want to build a stable basis for others to build upon."
Like Bill Gates an hour earlier (see earlier story), Torvalds said his aim was to have his operating system span from embedded devices to supercomputers. But Torvalds admitted that Linux is not yet ready for all applications. He said that on systems with tens or hundreds of processors, Unix versions from SGI, Sun or Compaq, "probably make more sense."
On the desktop, it might be another three years before Linux is simple enough for the mainstream user, said Torvalds. But he added: "I want that if people walk into a computer store in a couple of years, they have to think about which operating system they want to buy. That there is not just one default choice."
Torvalds also addressed the often cited danger that Linux will splinter into multiple non compatible versions. Torvalds said that several factors have played against such splintering. The Linux open source license allows any company to modify the operating system, but it also forces this company to offer these modifications to the general public under the same conditions. So if the new variant is successful, said Torvalds, other Linux vendors will copy it and, "the splinter heals."
One member of the audience asked Torvalds whether he expected Microsoft to port its Office product to Linux. Torvalds answered that it was more important to offer software with the same features, rather than Office itself. He referred to Star Office, the popular Linux suite, joking that Star Office, "actually looks so much like Office that some people get confused, and start saving their documents before they print."
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