From open science to open source and Linux
(13 June 2012)
Linux creator Linus Torvalds, perhaps Finland’s most influential tech expert globally, was announced as a joint Grand Winner of the 2012 Millennium Technology Prize on 13 June 2012 in Helsinki. Torvalds shared the prize with Japanese stem cell scientist Shinya Yamanaka.
The Linux operating system gained international popularity in the 1990s, and today it can be found running on all sorts of devices and systems from smartphones, internet servers, social networking services and digital converter boxes to super computers. And the list keeps growing.
A principled stand for open science and open-source software
As an open-source system, Linux quickly became a collaborative project among developers across the world, who all wanted to work together to build a new, better OS. Many Linux developers work for companies that are in direct competition with each other, but they all share a common interest in developing the system. “Linux kernel developers trust each other and, as they’re working with open source, truly believe that they are developing the best possible OS code,” says Torvalds.
“Open source – at all stages of development – is the key principle behind Linux. Basically, it’s a scientific method where freely and openly available data are used for new builds and applied to new software.”
“Science, too, is moving towards more open access. Today, universities spend too much money on acquiring publications, for instance, and they really should adopt a working open-access model,” Torvalds notes.
Write the source code, own the copyright
Though Torvalds is a strong advocate of copyright, he thinks the term of copyright should be made more reasonable.
“Copyright is a very important issue, not the least because an increasing proportion of technology consists of ideas and applications of these ideas. However, the term of copyright is too long. For example, the current term of copyright in the US, being as long as it is, allows for too much misuse. The optimal term could very well be 14 years, like it was before.”
Torvalds also calls for more rewarding of open source developers and acknowledgement and recognition of copyright.
“Many people don’t know that Android phones run on Linux, but that doesn’t really bother me,” he says, and continues to tell about his deep appreciation for developers who have done a good job. “When developing the Linux kernel, I want all contributors, documenters and testers to be acknowledged in the source code. This is a way to find out where credit – or blame – is due.”
On average, there is a new Linux version out every three months. Each kernel package consists of approximately one million lines of code, of which 600,000 lines are new code and some 300,000 lines alterations to previous codes. “It’s the product of work by more than a thousand people. These days, my own contribution is somewhere between one and a couple of hundred lines of code. Most of my work now is administration and checking other people’s codes,” Torvalds explains.
Idealism meets practical application
Linux developers have traditionally come from a background of free software development, but commercialisation has become an increasingly natural part of open-source development work.
“The open-source movement, which started more than thirty years ago, was based on very idealistic principles. The ideology behind it was very anti-commercial,” says Torvalds.
“Open-source developers then started to distance themselves from this absolute anti-commercial approach. Linux has been open to commercial collaboration since the 1990s, as long as it doesn’t violate the Linux licence,” he adds.
According to Torvalds, Linux has had nothing but positive experiences working with businesses. “We have so many tech-oriented developers at the core of Linux. The commercial collaborations have made the whole operating system much more user-friendly. In addition, commercialisation has brought resources and introduced new, broader perspectives. Back in 1999, IBM pledged a billion dollars for Linux development. Many developers were wary of this partnership, but I haven’t seen anything negative about it.”
Despite the commercial objectives, Torvalds is keen to emphasise the key aspect in the development of Linux: quality. “I can recognise good or bad code when I see it, because I’ve been doing this all my life.”
As for crowdsourcing, Torvalds has certain reservations. “Crowdsourcing doesn’t interest me. Sure, there are intelligent people out there, and crowdsourcing can be one way to tap into their potential. It’s also a way to implement tests. However, Linux development is not a democratic project – we only select the best people for the job. In the end, personal relationships are very important. I want people who I can trust to do really good work.”
“Of course, development is a field where arguments do occur, but I think they add to the level of motivation. After all, it’s people working with people they know and trust. Sure, you might have strong opinions, but it all comes down to the code – it’s the quality of your code that matters.”
Processors up against a brick wall
Torvalds says the end is nigh for IT development. “The forward march of processor technology will hit a brick wall in the next ten years, and it will be extremely difficult to go below the 5-nanometre scale.”
Likewise, he does not believe in ever-increasing storage capacity. “The Linux code has grown based on the idea that computer capacity would also continue its growth. This situation involves many interesting challenges in terms of Linux development.”
Torvalds also comments on the nuisance of viruses: “Computers have become so indispensable for us all that we really need to protect against viruses. They pose a real threat not unlike biological viruses. It’s important to be exposed to viruses, so that we can come up with effective virus protection. In twenty years’ time, I think our IT infrastructure will be much better than it is now, and so much more prepared against any viruses.
Original text by Vesa Varpula
Photo by Millennium Technology Prize