The world according to Linus

Computerworld catches up with the man behind Linux, Linus Torvalds, at Linux.conf.au

When do you think we'll see the first batch of kernel patches from the OLPC project?

I'm wondering if we haven't seen some of those already. One of the big things they had was the power usage, because they actually keep the screen on and turn off the CPU when nothing is going on. This is something that went in not that long ago. We have a much more dynamic view of time - we can literally stop our timer interrupts from happening over longer periods. I think the OLPC people were involved, even though the developers may have sent stuff onto me directly or not.

You're not big on virtualisation, why doesn't it excite you?

I think it has been over hyped a bit, it's one of those hot buzz word type of things. Part of it is that for the people who tend to be more interested in virtualisation there tends to be three usage cases. One is the desktop usage case where you want to use virtualisation to run another operating system, for example, you run programs like VMWare in order to run Windows on your Linux box. For me personally, that is completely uninteresting because why would I want to run Windows on my Linux machine?

The second reason is a lot of commercial people want virtualisation as they want to utilise their computers better, so they have one very powerful computer but they have many different things they want to run on that and keep them separate, so they use virtualisation to kind of create these independent boxes. This is nice for IT where you manage things better, even if you have one big computer you manage them as smaller entities, and again that's not what I do.

The third reason is to run legacy operating systems, even if it's the same operating system but you run an older version because you have certain programs that you want to run. But none of those reasons are things that I do, so I personally have not been very into virtualisation, it's just not something that I'm doing.

The fact that I'm completely uninterested in virtualisation doesn't mean that we don't support it; we have many different models for virtualisation that Linux actually supports, because I don't have to be interested in something for it to actually happen.

Desktop Linux is really taking off for education purposes in less wealthy countries, why do you think that is?

One of the nice things about Linux, the reason I think Linux is used in commercial settings, tends to be because it's very flexible. It's not just cheap, it's also that you can tune it for your particular usage case and that's one of the reasons it gets used there. In the developing world there are two reasons. One is obviously the price which is always a big issue, especially if you want to bootstrap your own IT technology. It's kind of pointless to buy a pre-made package when you don't know how it works and you can't change it. You really can't claw yourself up from zero when you have very basic knowledge and a very polished package that you can't even look at to see how it works - you just can't learn from that. You can learn to use it but you can't actually learn to recreate anything like it.

So one of the things I think the OLPC does very well, for example, is that a lot of the applications they have are written in a very easy language. It's not the most efficient language perhaps, and it's not necessarily the language I would use, but Python is really easy to learn - it's perfectly straightforward. I think they have a special button you can press so when you use one of these programs you can see the source code for it, so you can literally learn how that program works. If you screw up you can say "OK I want the original back because my edits didn't actually work". But I think if you are serious about not just wanting to give people computers, but are hoping to instill into them skills in computers - not just to use a word processor but to understand how it actually works - I think Linux and open source in general is almost a requirement. Because without source access it's always just going to be a black box.

The price is important, don't get me wrong, but I think the source access just for learning purposes is hugely important. Even though let's face it, most people will not look at the source code, most people using a computer will just use it as a computer. But even if you have just a small percentage that actually looks at the source code and tries to understand it - that's how you build up maybe a small core but still a core competency in computer science - no matter where you are, even if you're in sub-Saharan Africa.

Are you disappointed there is no dunk-tank at LCA this year?

No, no. The dunk-tank is one of those things that I think once you've done it once, you don't need to do it anymore!

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More about: Black Box, KDE, Linux, Microsoft, VMware
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