Linus Torvalds Explains How Open Source Led to the Success of Linux


In a rare and deeply personal interview with TED Curator Chris Anderson, Linus Torvalds spoke about how open source made his projects what they are today. Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel and the Git version control system, revealed that he prefers to work alone, in his bathrobe, in total silence. Although he heads up one of the largest open source projects in the world, with 1,000 contributors involved in every bimonthly release, Torvalds claims he is not a people person.

“I did not start Linux as a collaborative project,” Torvalds said. “I started it as one in a series of many projects I had done at the time for myself, partly because I needed the end result, but even more because I just enjoyed programming.”

Torvalds said that open source wasn’t really on his radar at all. As Linux grew, it became something he wanted to show off to people and he made it publicly available. It wasn’t even open source at that point, which was mainly called “free software” back then. He had no intention of using open source to improve his project. He simply invited comments on his project and, to his amazement, people took interest in the code and started contributing ideas.

“Every project before that had been completely personal, and it was a revelation when people just started commenting, started giving feedback on your code,” Torvalds said.

As the Linux project grew, thousands of people wanted to contribute. Torvalds said that it reached a breaking point where he knew he couldn’t scale it to work with that many people without having some kind of version control system in place.

“So git is my second project, which was only created for me to maintain my first project,” he said. “And this is literally how I work. I do code for fun, but I want to code for something meaningful. Every single project that I’ve ever done has been for something I needed.”

Ironically, for someone who professes not to be a people person, Torvalds revolutionized collaborative development for teams and projects with Git. He said that he has often been in conflict with other people and can be “myopic when it comes to other people’s feelings.” Open source gave him a way to work effectively with other people:

One of the things I really like about open source is it allows different people to work together. We don’t have to like each other, and sometimes we really don’t like each other. There are very, very heated arguments. You don’t even agree to disagree – it’s just that you’re interested in different things.

Coming back to the point that I said earlier, that I was afraid of commercial people taking advantage of your work – It very quickly turned out that those commercial people were lovely people. And they did all the things that I was not at all interested in doing and they had completely different goals. And they used open source in ways that I just did not want to go. But because it was open source they could do it and it actually works really beautifully together.

One of the most interesting things about his story is that he first embraced open source out of practicality, not because of ideological convictions.

“Without doing the whole open-source-and-really-letting-go thing, Linux would never have been what it is,” Torvalds said. Even so, he said he doesn’t necessarily think the principle can be applied to other aspects of life beyond code without a lot of grey areas.

Despite having changed the future by creating technology that powers the internet, Torvalds does not consider himself a visionary.

“I am not a visionary,” he said. “I do not have a five year plan. I’m an engineer. I’m perfectly happy with all the people who are walking around staring at the clouds and looking at the stars and saying, ‘I want to go there.’ But I’m looking at the ground and I want to fix the pothole that’s right in front of me before I fall in.”

Check out the 21-minute interview in the video below:


12 responses to “Linus Torvalds Explains How Open Source Led to the Success of Linux”

  1. An important reason for the long term success of the Linux project has been how Linus Torvalds has kept the VC at bay mainly by keeping them at a distance with a total of only about $100 million in net worth (not measured in billions, a factor of 10 or more poorer than other similar tech founders). The Linux foundation appears to have been co-opted by its corporate sponsors like some other well-known foundations as individuals are no longer eligible for membership in the board of directors:

    Members of the foundation’s board of directors are elected by corporate members (higher-paying members electing more directors). Membership was also open to individuals (enabling them to collectively elect two directors and individually run for one of those two seats) until January 2016, when those provisions were eliminated. Individuals can now only be “supporters”.

    Still, Linus Torvalds is a great example of principled open source leadership and how to retain the independence/freedom of your project.

  2. Doh! What Linus told on the interview regarding how he embraced “open source” out of practically, kind of my story, too- although I was not fortunate enough to had great people around me back in early days.

    Still I think there are two kind of people in open-source world, one to take ideology or whatever of it, another just for practical reason.

  3. I didn’t realize Linux is a 25 year old project. I thought it was younger than that. I loved the part where Torvalds says the following:

    Without doing the whole open source and really letting go thing, Linux would never have been what it is

    It reminds me of commercial WordPress plugin and theme authors who want to hold on instead of letting go and embracing the GPL and open source.

    • GPL is great Jeff, but being willing to release the core of one’s code as GPL is a different proposition than giving away all of your code. As we are both aware, GPL is a two-edged sword. Unrestricted GPL licensing lost Jigowatt a two year investment in Jigoshop when Woo poached their top two developers with zero compensation.

      Woo on the other hand was able to make Automattic pay richly for the same team and the rights to the name and customer base just a few years later. So GPL seems to work well for bigger companies (within a respective IT space) now and less well for smaller shops (Jigowatt). GPL probably still works for sole-proprietor as the poaching company has to make an offer to the founder (as s/he’s the principal coder).

      GPL means that the dominant player in the space (Automattic) can offer Microsoft terms to anyone in their ecosphere. For those who remember those terms were “sell to us or we will clone you and destroy you”. There was a large anti-trust war over Microsoft’s tactics. GPL was in part a defensive reaction to Microsoft and Oracle (and even Apple) business practices of the walled garden and/or excellent software becoming abandonware. In many ways, clever contemporary businessmen have managed to subvert the intent of GPL and the GPL has become an even more dangerous capitalist weapon than proprietary software.

      Software ownership and business issues are complex. I’m just suggesting that the GPL is not the blanket panacea which it’s being presented. Even the deeper motivations of GPL proponents may not always be noble. I remember well a time when WordPress was about creating great free solutions. Revenue was supposed to come out of implementing the solutions and not the shared code. WordPress was supposed to put an end to expensive proprietary solutions. Now just the code updates for a halfway capable WooCommerce shop will set you back $1000 or $2000 annually, unless you buy from one of the GPL warehouses. As you so eloquently described, the backend admin of WordPress has become a minefield of advertising and self-promotion.

      This isn’t shareware. This isn’t free software distribution. It’s something else entirely. The GPL alone hasn’t saved us from the tragedy of the commons.


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