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The cult of Linus

The cult of Linus

Matthew JC. Powell may dabble in Linux, but he's determined not to drink the Kool-Aid . . .

Iknew there was something not to like about Linux. Anything that looks like that much of a win/win proposition just has to have a down side somewhere, right?

Look at it this way: on the one hand, Linux has a reputation for being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The word 'bulletproof' often arises in discussions of its capabilities. In direct benchmark comparisons between Linux and Superman, Linux wins because it can see through lead.

On the other hand, it's free as a bird. Anyone with sufficient technical nous and an Internet account can collect all the appropriate bits and set up a Linux system for themselves without having to shell out a single red cent. If they really want to, they can then put all those bits on a CD and sell them to others with less technical nous - no problems.

Likewise, developers share source code with each other. Nothing is hidden - bugs are spoken about openly so that the community can solve its problems and move on as a collective entity. It's a touchy-feely caring sharing world, where programmers eschew profit in favour of the common good and men aren't afraid to hug. Linux is no mere operating system, it's a fuzzy warm puppy of a thing that's turned hackers into hippies practically overnight.

Which is exactly what worries me. The computer industry just isn't like that. It's tough, it's predatory and it's secretive. Companies betray their partners, crush their competitors, lie to their customers and generally do whatever it takes to get ahead. It's a fascinating thing to be on the fringes of, observing, but scary once you're in the middle. Anyone who's going to change that is going to require considerable charisma.

Which brings me to Linus Torvalds. As the original developer of Linux, he is its de facto spokesperson, despite the fact that hundreds if not thousands of developers have contributed to the product's current form. Few of these developers enjoy anything like Torvalds' fame, and they never will. They defer to him as their leader despite the fact that the entire philosophy of Linux is supposed to be a collective effort.

Why? Simple. It's named after him. Stop and consider that for a moment: have any of you ever used an operating system that was named after its originator? The only other one I can think of is Atari's defunct TOS, which almost everyone believed stood for Tramiel Operating System, after the company's chairman, Jack Tramiel. Tramiel himself claimed that it stood for The Operating System, but that's hardly less egotistical.

The Macintosh is named after a variety of Apple. Windows is named after its interface metaphor. DOS is named for its lot in life, as a disk-based operating system. Likewise, I don't believe that the etymology of Unix, Solaris, FreeBSD, A/UX, AmigaDOS, OS/2 or BeOS can be traced to an individual's name. If any of them can, I truly pity the individuals in question.

The most obvious consequence of this self-tribute is in the pronunciation of Linux. Until a while ago, everyone I knew who had heard of Linux pronounced it 'line-ux'. Then a sound bite started doing the rounds of e-mail chain letters, featuring Torvalds himself saying 'my name is Linus Torvalds, and I pronounce Linux Linux', so it kind of rhymes with 'linen', as does his own name. Since then everyone has taken on the 'correct' pronunciation, the one endorsed from on high.

But why should they? Sure, Torvalds gets a say in how we pronounce his name. That's only fair enough. But Linux isn't his name, it's a product he originated but which has grown beyond him. If the millions of Linux users in the world want to say 'line-ux', they are perfectly entitled.

I had a discussion recently with a Linux enthusiast friend of mine, regarding what it will take for Linux to be considered a success. Does it have to take market share from NT in the enterprise? If so, how much? What if it simply becomes a widely used alternative OS on the desktop?

My friend suggested that Linux could be considered successful if it were completely eradicated, but only because Microsoft and others adopted the open-source development and distribution model. 'What Linus wants,' he said, 'is to change the world.'

As I've already said, I think Linux is now big enough that what Linus wants for it is largely irrelevant. If it is not irrelevant then something is very wrong. The last thing the computer industry needs is yet another cult.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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