Commentary: Linus Torvalds, the accidental revolutionary

If you ever ran into Linus Torvalds, you'd probably like him. But he won't be looking for you. He doesn't seem to think he's that important--even if the rest of the world does.

Linus Torvalds is, in some ways, the Chauncey Gardiner of the computer industry. I don't mean this in a mean way, and certainly don't mean to compare Torvalds's intellect to that of to the dimwitted character portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1979 motion picture "Being There."

But as the character Sellers played was catapulted from being a lowly gardener into an international celebrity--even a prophet--more though other people's doing than his own, so Torvalds has become the leader, quite by accident, of a major world religion (and one named after himself): Linux.

Which probably makes him uniquely suited for the job. Torvalds didn't go looking for cyber-stardom, he just wrote a Unix-based operating system in the bedroom of his home in his native Finland. (By the way, interesting aside: His wife is a national karate champ).

Torvalds seems to accept his stardom reluctantly, more as a responsibility or even a curse than as some external valuation of his worth to humanity. And do you really want to follow someone who spent all his life doing whatever it took to become your leader?

I recently had the opportunity--the rare opportunity, I should say--to interview Torvalds.

This was during his tour--if you call two days of interviews in one city much of a tour--promoting his new book, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. These interviews were the source of the Craig Mundie-bashing recently attributed to Torvalds. (Mundie, a senior VP for Microsoft, had publicly questioned the viability of the open-source movement.)

But I was there--at least when Torvalds used the word "crap"--and have to say he didn't seem all that worked up about Mundie, sounding like he considered the Microsoft exec more of a misinformed child than a leader of an industry-defining company set on doing Torvalds's invention harm.

Torvalds, for the record, didn't know what stock options were until well after his OS was on the road to success, and probably has made many millions for many others. I don't know what his net worth his, but I can imagine there are lots of less deserving people still worth a whole lot more, even in this down economy.

It is, in case you've heard otherwise, perfectly fine to call him Linus--pronounced the same way as the name of Lucy Van Pelt's brother in the Peanuts comic strip ("lye-nuss"). The operating system is spelled Linux, but pronounced "linn-ucks," which more closely matches Torvalds's first name in his native Finnish and Swedish.

In those languages his name comes closer to being pronounced "lee-noos" than anything that easily rolls off the tongues of native English speakers. So, unless you have a passable Finnish accent, stick with the Charlie Brown interpretation.

I have occasionally heard that Linus is a bit reclusive because that's how good cult leaders are supposed to behave, explaining why he doesn't do many speeches or give many interviews. While I think this--and an exaggerated sense of self-importance--drives people like Steve Jobs, I think Torvalds just doesn't think the world needs to hang on this every word, thought, or deed.

Torvalds is a technology leader in the same way as Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Hewlett, Packard, and hundreds of others who changed our world but somehow escaped People magazine's list of the 50 World's Most Beautiful residents.

Not that Torvalds couldn't make the list--he's quite handsome in a way that completely escapes most engineering wonks in that he looks, well, normal. But if People ever calls, I am pretty certain of one thing: Linus wouldn't answer.

If you ever ran into Linus Torvalds, you'd probably like him. But, and I'm sure he means no offense by this, he won't be looking for you. He doesn't seem to think he's that important--even if the rest of the world does.