What I like most about Linus Torvalds is his candor.
You don't get his brand of off-the-cuff comments from most CEOs. Okay, okay, so I admit I think of him as the CEO of Linux. Doesn't everybody?
Anyway, to the point. A few days ago, Torvalds described bumping into a bunch of religious zealots at a local Costco where he lives in Oregon.
Check this out, directly from his blog last Friday:
"Sitting there, I can't but help overhear that it's apparently some religious discussion going on. Ok, so it's the local God Squad having their lunch meeting, no biggie. They're apparently talking about Africa, and about life and death decisions etc - at least one of them is a missionary.
And that's when it gets strange. One of them starts to seriously talk about praying demons away, and then after the prayer has driven the demon out of the person, you have to support the person so that the demon doesn't come back. And nobody laughs at him.
Seriously? What year is it again? I'm pretty sure they didn't have Costco foodcourts in the middle ages, but maybe there was some time warping going on.
What the hell is wrong with people?
This is quintessential Linus, and the reason why journalists love to quote him. He is so colorful and to the point.
It makes we wonder, though, what he thought about the level of extremist rhetoric that went on in the early days of Linux and open source.
Many people in the industry were and remain very passionate about the open source model of development and its wide ranging impacts on society and democracy.
But there were some members of the community who truly believed that Microsoft was an evil empire and that proprietary software companies should be put out of business simply because of their profit motive. [And there were Microsoft zealots, too, who denounced open source as anti-capitalistic.] They were downright nasty.
I recall swapping stories with fellow technology journalists about the volume of hate e-mail we would receive if we dared write anything controversial or critical about open source software, and Linux, in particular. Newsweek's Dan Lyons, who was then with BusinessWeek, took great delight in provoking such response and recounting some of the most memorable zingers sent his way.
I remember more than a few myself. Once I wrote an analysis that carried the headline, "Is Linus Killing Linux?"
It was hyperbole, of course, and designed to provoke interest in a story that examined who or what might become the controlling "manager" of the Linux kernel -- or which commercial interest might try to hijack the code. [This was before the SCO lawsuit.]
But some of the e-mails I received about that piece indicated that some saw the headline as pejorative and me as a biased (maybe demonic) Microsoft worshipper.
Another time I attended a conference about desktop Linux and one of the speakers tossed a plastic penguin in my direction, inadverdently hitting me in the face. Everyone (including me) had a good laugh but it got uncomfortably quiet in the room when the speaker quipped that he didn't intend to hit a member of the press.
Much of that extremism has abated and the fiery rhetoric out of North Carolina and Redmond has quieted as the commercial reality of co-existence has set in.
Still, given his recent blog, I wonder what Linus thought about the extremism of some on the open source side. He was and is the rock star of the movement but was always careful to stay focused on the technical aspects of Linux -- and out of the marketing wars as much as possible.
I think his sensible approach to the business of technology and the rational demeanor he brought to the debate over open source vs proprietary software did more to steady the boat than anyone realized at the time. Maybe that's why he is still at the helm after all these years.