Column: Linus Torvalds: Is That Real Silicon?

I was waiting in line to pick up my press badge at the first Linuxworld conference back in March when I saw a familiar, bespectacled face beside me. It was Linus Torvalds, the affable, 29-year-old creator of Linux, waiting patiently to register for the show -- waiting to register for his own show.

It's this sort of unpretentious behavior that has helped Torvalds emerge as an oddball figurehead here in Silicon Valley. In a sea of egomaniacal IT executives hyping their companies -- and themselves -- to the hilt, Torvalds has nurtured a humble, understated presence that has made him the darling of the open-source community, and helped Linux make a heady ascent towards the IT mainstream.

Take his "keynote speech" at the most recent Linuxworld show earlier this month. The young Finn had enough marketing ammunition at hand to hype Linux to the moon: every big IT firm on the planet (apart from that one in Redmond) was proclaiming support for the open-source OS. New research out that day showed Linux making real headway in the business market. And with the help of distributor Red Hat Software Inc., Linux had jumped into the ever so sexy, potentially lucrative world of the IPO (initial public offering).

So what does Torvalds do? He shuns convention to spend an hour and a half conducting a hacker question and answer session with the audience, addressing the mind-boggling minutiae of the next Linux kernel.

"Linus, when can we expect support for CCNUMA in the Linux kernel?"

CC what? Who gives a monkey's! Bring on the dancing girls, the demos, the vision!

For here's how a Silicon Valley speech is supposed to go, as tried and tested by the chief executives from Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., and every other high-flying IT outfit in this high-tech corridor:

The lights dim and the auditorium fills with loud, electronic disco beats (this is hip, this is now!). Enter an IT executive in a shiny suit, who talks about how the industrial revolution (or the automobile, or the telephone) changed the world in a snap. The Internet, we are told, is doing the same thing, only faster -- much faster! But thank your stars! Company X has the products that can save us from digital anarchy. Demonstrations ensue, some closing remarks, exit stage left to a waiting Mercedes.

The scene is played out at conferences up and down the Valley daily. The further back you take the history lesson, it seems, the more points you score. Dick Brass, the Microsoft Corp. vice president who introduced the company's new font-display technology at Seybold this week, opened with a slide of caveman drawings from the caves of Lascaux. If only they'd had Microsoft ClearType!

The truth is, of course, that the Silicon Valley style wouldn't suit Linux any more than a tie-dye T-shirt would suit Oracle style magnet Larry Ellison. In fact, such glitzy launches and buzzword-infested speeches are the antithesis of everything Linux has come to represent -- namely, grassroots software developers making products for the community, not profit.

And that's where Torvalds -- by luck or by design -- provides exactly what the doctor ordered to keep Linux on its steady climb towards global domination. As the operating system infiltrates the big-money world of corporate IT, Linux needs a spokesman who won't alienate the counterculture community of developers the OS relies on for its development, and who have backed Linux from the get-go. At the same time, what better than a humble Joe programmer fighting Microsoft to give the press something to champion.

How Torvalds will deal with the media attention he has attracted, the devotion he inspires from the developer community, not to mention the commercial success of Linux, is another matter. The lessons of history aren't all that reassuring. Today's computer billionaires were once starry-eyed, T-shirted techies, and look where they ended up. Perhaps Torvalds can keep his feet on the ground amid all the Linux hype -- he appears to be holding up pretty well so far.

Desk edit by: Clare Haney

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