The 1999 Industry Achievement Award goes to Linus Torvalds. At the ripe old age of 21, Linus (pronounced lee-nuss) decided in 1991 to take up a hobby.
His hobby was to write his own operating system, Linux (pronounced lynn-ucks).
Eight years later, Linux runs on between 10 and 25 million machines, and its installed base continues to grow rapidly.
InfoWorld began covering Linux in 1993, but it wasn't until 1998 that it appeared as a significant blip on corporate radar. Since then, virtually every major software vendor besides Microsoft has pledged support for Linux.
And in 1999, Linux became white-hot. Linux-related companies Red Hat Software and VA Linux had record-breaking initial public offerings, making instant millionaires and billionaires out of people who sell and support something you can download via the Internet for free.
Linux is so hot that, these days, all a tech company has to do to enjoy a spike in stock price is to announce some new alliance with a Linux-related company.
But perhaps the most stunning development in 1999 was that Linux began to pose a significant threat to Microsoft Windows 2000 (pronounced blue-screen-of-death).
If you doubt Linux is eating into Windows' server market share, watch out; your own company may be evidence against your assumptions. Don't be so sure Windows is serving up your files and managing your printers. Linux integrates so smoothly into an existing infrastructure that it may be running your business without you knowing.
For Torvalds, Linux is still a hobby. He doesn't want to be saddled with commercial concerns. Commercial issues are for companies such as Caldera, Corel, Red Hat, SuSE and TurboLinux to figure out.
That attitude might contribute to why Linux is so successful. History will demonstrate that there were two primary factors that drove the success of Linux: the talent and genius of Torvalds and the open-source community working on this "hobby project," and the fact that Torvalds published the source code under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL requires anyone who contributes to Linux to release his or her source code. That is equivalent to having a written guarantee that no one can hold your infrastructure hostage while they take the source code in directions that have little to do with solving your business problems.
In a sense, that makes Torvalds the quintessential anti-Gates. Bill Gates is a contract law genius who was given the persona of a technical whiz by marketing.
Gates built his success on the ability to dictate and control how others use his company's operating system.
Torvalds, however, truly is a technical genius who makes no effort to alter his public persona. He built Linux's success on the principle that nobody should dictate and control how others use Linux.
Linus Torvalds changed the software industry forever -- and as any Linux user can tell you, he changed it for the better.
(Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (http://www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at email@example.com.)