If Linus cared more about what happens outside the kernel, it might be a less useful operating system.
On October 2002's Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise, over a hundred Linux faithful got to hang with Linus Torvalds himself for a week. Although conversation seemed to run to children more often than to technology (between us we have four kids under six), Linus talked enough techno trash for me to gather that the man's mantra consists of three short words: I don't care.
There's a lot of stuff Linus doesn't care about: anything in “user space”, other operating systems, new noncommodity microprocessors, fights over development methods, the whole “free vs. open” thing, etc. The list goes on forever, as there's a vast world of technical and political stuff going on outside the one thing he does care about: the kernel.
Linus opened his talk on the boat with this disclaimer: “I only do kernel stuff. I did user-level stuff about ten years ago—only because without it the kernel isn't usable. I don't know what happens outside the kernel, and I don't much care. What happens inside the kernel I care about.”
By not caring, Linus doesn't mean he has no opinions. Like the rest of us, he has plenty of those. Unlike the rest of us, however, he's a Major Figure whose opinions are given a great deal of weight—even when he goes out of his way to remove gravity by disclaiming any interest in a subject. That's why Linus made news with a number of zero-gravity opinions he offered in his talk on the boat, such as why he doesn't like Intel's Itanium or Apple's Mac OS X.
It's only natural to assume that strong feelings accompany strong opinions; but this seems to be less true for Linus than it is for most people, because he often goes out of his way to explain how little he cares about stuff that might be interesting but also distracting. Politics is a perfect example. In that same talk on the boat, he said, “To me all the politics is just amusement value. I don't care.” And because he doesn't care, Linux is a huge success. In fact, it's getting huger every day.
Another geek cruiser was Roland Smith, director of Global IT Operations at LSI Logic. He explained to me how LSI Logic was gradually converting to Linux pretty much across the board, from fancy engineering workstations to desktops. For them, it wasn't only that Linux is cheap and useful, but that it uncomplicates many things.
Roland's story is consistent with a shift in the direction of news about Linux that I began to sense around the time of the cruise. The OS was suddenly being taken seriously and not simply as a “threat” to Microsoft. It was becoming established as a mainstream OS—perhaps the mainstream OS—and the reasons were purely practical. Linux is cheap and easy to deploy. It's about as simple and useful as an operating system can be. These virtues are old hat for the Linux community, but they're new hat for many of the world's suits, who aren't used to an OS that doesn't obsolete itself as a matter of policy.
One of the panel discussions on the boat raised the subject of obsolescence. Linus pointed out that commercial software is based to some degree on a model that values obsolescence. Case in point: when Windows 98 came out, Bill Gates was asked about threats from Mac OS. Gates dismissed the question and said the real enemy of Windows 98 was Windows 95. His goal, plainly, was to extract fresh revenues from his entire customer base. Apple clearly has similar plans with major new releases of Mac OS X. For two decades, customers have taken this imperative for granted. They had no choice.
Linux lets customers choose an OS that doesn't care to obsolete itself. That choice became much more interesting to a lot of suits last summer when Microsoft raised its licensing rates for Windows. In a down economy, this rate increase put customers in a much better frame of mind to entertain the Linux alternative.
At the kernel level, Linux doesn't have a commercial agenda. Its purpose is to be useful, period. If you can find a way to make money with it, fine. Linus and his kernel don't care. Sure, some things do get obsoleted along the way. In his talk, Linus explained how the 2.6 kernel will have a whole new block device layer. But even those changes are not being made for the sake of obsoleting anything. They're being made so the kernel will be more useful, in more ways, for as long as possible.
The inherent practicality of the Linux kernel extends upward through the countless choices it supports. By contrast, it's hard to imagine Microsoft or Apple wanting to support multiple desktops or UIs by developers other than themselves. But that's exactly what Linux does. It supports those desktops and UIs by not caring about them.
Dave Sifry explains how it all works:
By focusing on a strong separation between kernel-space code and user-space code, the kernel is more stable and strong user-space projects increase momentum. For example, by reducing the amount of code in the kernel, projects like Samba have been able to innovate in a decentralized manner and to create more stable, feature-filled code. No one has to post a patch to linux-kernel in order to get changes made to Samba. All of the major subsystems of Linux share this attribute—XFree86, GNOME and KDE, browsers, heck, even glibc (although the glibc example isn't as strong as the others). We also don't have to worry about Linus creating hidden APIs to make OpenOffice better than AbiWord, or Mozilla better than Opera or KDE better than GNOME, no matter which of those Linus personally prefers.
Not caring is the ultimate level playing field, and it tends to best support other level paying fields built on top of it. For example, while Debian is perhaps the least commercial of all the major Linux distributions, it has provided extremely practical commercial “solution” building material for the likes of Lindows and Xandros. If Debian were busy caring about those implementations, it might be a lot less practical.
“Transparency” is another old-hat Linux virtue that's becoming a hot buzzword in the world of suits. How long before customers demand the same absence of opacity in their OSes as they do in their accounting systems? Hey, why care? It's going to happen anyway.