Exclusive: Linus Torvalds tells his story

In Just for Fun, the story of an accidental revolutionary, the creator of Linux tries to shed his media image as a self-effacing monk
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

When Linux Torvalds was approached by Wired journalist David Diamond to write an autobiography he said: sure, so long as it is fun. The result, Just for Fun, The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, gives an insight into the life of the man who as much by accident as by design has been hailed as the embodiment of the open source revolution.

The book is not technical. Instead, it emulates Torvalds' own dominating personality trait to take a pragmatic journey through the events that led to the Linux operating system gaining the massive following that it enjoys today.

As the sub-head to the title suggests, Linus Torvalds came into the world of open source by a roundabout route.

From his start as "an ugly child" through his years spent growing into his nose and on to his (shy) geekdom at university, the book follows Torvalds through early programming ventures first on a Commodore Vic-20 and later a Sinclair QL, to his purchase of a 386-based PC. On this PC Torvalds wrote his first terminal emulation program to address shortcomings in the Unix variant operating system, Minix. It was this terminal emulation program which, having acquired a disk driver and file system, metamorphosed into the operating system which almost ended up being called Freax.

The rest is an accident of history. But this review is not meant to give away the whole plot. If you do want to know the story of how Linux got its name, and how Tux the Penguin with its unnatural orange Daffy-Duck bill came to be the mascot, you'll have to read the book.

The pragmatic nature of the book requires honesty and of this there is no shortage. Indeed, Torvalds should be congratulated for trying -- even if it is in vain -- to dismiss the media image of a "self-effacing monk".

He uses the Red Hat IPO, when he realised that he was actually worth something financially, as an example. "Regardless of the image that has caught on in the press, of me as a selfless geek-for-the-masses living under a vow of poverty," says Torvalds, "I was, frankly, delirious."

But that self-effacing manner always creeps back. The growing rise in popularity of Linux led to a parallel rise in demands on its creator; from his office at Transmeta, Torvalds found that for his own sanity he had to stop answering his own phone. A column from ZDNet, reprinted in the book, prompts Torvalds to address the issue. "Anyone reading this column would assume the mounting pressures of my role as chief nerd has turned me into an asshole," says Torvalds. But, he adds, that impression is wrong: "I was always an asshole."

If there is one place this book fails, it is in wholly dismissing the Torvalds stereotype which, he asserts, is uncool, boring and plain untrue.

But of course the book is not all about Linus Torvalds. It is about the Linux operating system and, more important still, the issues surrounding it. For the story of Linux is the story of a collaborative effort (and true to its roots, the book is a collaboration, between Torvalds and Diamond). The concept of open source and the GNU Public Licence (GPL) which Torvalds adopted to ensure that bug fixes, patches and developments would continually flow back into the into the community, is examined, as is the increasingly vocal debate over intellectual property.

Torvalds has made his enemies along the way, and they are not confined to the most obvious quarters. If you are expecting a long diatribe against Microsoft, forget it. As Torvalds himself says, the Linux phenomenon is about something else entirely, "something far more wide-reaching".

No, most of Torvalds' enemies are to be found closer to home. For instance, the first to have his hackles raised by Torvalds was Minix operating system author Andrew Tanenbaum, who did not like the monolithic approach to the Linux kernel. Then there was Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software foundation and the GPL, who campaigned -- and continues to do so -- for Linux to be renamed GNU/Linux.

Not that Torvalds sees these people as enemies. Indeed, one of his overriding concerns seems to be that people take him too seriously. Hence the title.

However, Torvalds' intentions notwithstanding, this book is likely to inflame old arguments about microkernels vs monolithic kernels, the concept of whether Linux should really be called GNU/Linux, and the issue of open source software versus free software. It will also help fuel the debate over intellectual property, to which Torvalds devotes the closing chapters. This is no bad thing; if Torvalds' book helps explain the issues surrounding open source and intellectual property to a wider audience, it will be a success.

There are some surprises, such as the names of some of the companies that offered Torvalds a job when Linux started making the headlines in 1997. Perhaps more surprising is that the man who manages a development effort involving thousands of programmers, felt that he failed as a manager at Transmeta, the chip designer that he eventually decided to join.

The writing is pedestrian in style, but that is not important and should not deter anybody who is interested in the concept of Linux and free software in general. What is important, is that the book is eminently readable. There are two reasons for this: First, the book is, as one might expect of such an accomplished programmer, perfectly structured; and second, the subject matter is fascinating.

There is only one problem that this reviewer sees with the book; unlike Torvalds' operating system, you have to pay for it.

Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond will be published by Texere on 15 May for £17.99.

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