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The 10 Most Important People of the Decade
Number 3: Linus Torvalds
October 2, 2000
By Gregory Yerxa
Frustrated with the established operating systems, Torvalds banged out a freely distributed alternative operating system and spawned the Linux revolution.
That was in 1991, and to this day he remains the self-proclaimed director and filter of features and technologies that go into the core Linux operating system.
There's no doubt that Torvalds has been a major force in computing and networking. His operating system started out as the catalysts of most revolutions do--quietly. But as interest in Linux grew, so did its commercial potential. Determined to share and improve on his project to the greatest extent possible, Torvalds committed commercial suicide and conjured up a copyright that would prohibit anyone--including himself--from using his creation for capital gain. So extensive and complete was the original copyright that within months he changed it to a less restrictive GNU General Public License (GPL), a move he says was the best thing he ever did. Who are we to disagree?
Torvalds' decision to freely distribute his work stands in stark contrast to the practices of the day. While IPO fever hadn't yet risen to the pitch of recent years, programmers commonly cashed in on their personal creations. In the early 1990s--at the same time Microsoft was seeing incredible commercial successes--the Linux movement steadily navigated the pitfalls of GPL development and made refinement after refinement.
Attracting the do-it-yourself types of programmers, engineers and IT professionals, Linux began to make inroads, first into educational IT shops, and then into the deep recesses of the corporate enterprise.
In the past three or four years, we've started to see the impact of Torvalds' philosophies on day-to-day business. His concern for the bottom-line functionality of any project he becomes involved with is commonplace within the GPL community, where programmers would rather redo something poorly implemented--potentially causing other functionality to be lost--than continue with something less than optimum.
Unencumbered by a long product history--and by customers demanding that future development not affect their in-house applications--Linux has developed into a rich operating system with a feature list that reads like the best of the best of computer-science research and development. But with widespread deployment come the shackles of an installed customer base, and Linux is no exception to that rule. How Torvalds and the host of Linux developers deal with the success of their creation will be interesting to watch in the coming years.
While his past work rivals that of the most prominent systems houses, Torvalds' latest project takes aim at another technology with a leader no less powerful: Torvalds is a programmer at Transmeta Corp., whose innovative Crusoe processors are poised to take on the coveted chip market, which is so completely dominated by Intel. Could Transmeta be the next giant slayer? If the company has managed to corral a team with the perspective and drive of Torvalds, Intel had better be worried.