Torvalds, Linus

▪ 2000

      In 1991 Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Helsinki, Fin., having just purchased his first personal computer (PC), decided that he was not satisfied with the computer's operating system (OS). His PC used MS-DOS (the disk operating system from Microsoft Corp.), but Torvalds preferred the UNIX operating system he had used on the university's computers. He decided to create his own PC-based version of UNIX. Months of determined programming work yielded the beginnings of an operating system known as Linux that, eight years later, developed into what many observers saw as a genuine threat to mighty Microsoft and its seemingly ubiquitous Windows OS. By 1999 Torvalds had become a cult hero to a devoted band of computer users.

      Torvalds was born in 1970 and grew up in Helsinki. At the age of 10 he began to dabble in computer programming on his grandfather's Commodore VIC-20. By the time he reached college, Torvalds considered himself an accomplished enough programmer to take on the Herculean task of creating an alternate operating system for his new PC. Once he had completed a rough version of Linux, he posted a message on the Internet to alert other PC users to his new system. He made the software available for free downloading, and, as was a common practice among software developers at the time, he released the source code, which meant that anyone with knowledge of computer programming could modify Linux to suit their own purposes. Linux soon had a following of enthusiastic supporters who, because they had access to the source code, were able to help Torvalds retool and refine the software.

      Operating Linux required a certain amount of technical acumen; it was not as easy to use as more popular operating systems such as Windows, Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS, or IBM's OS/2. Because its volunteer developers prided themselves on the quality of their work, however, Linux evolved into a remarkably reliable, efficient system that rarely crashed. Linux got its big break in the late 1990s when competitors of Microsoft began taking the upstart OS seriously. Netscape Communications Corp., Corel Corp., Oracle Corp., Intel Corp., and other companies announced plans to support Linux as an inexpensive alternative to Windows. As this scenario took shape, Linux devotees and the media delighted in portraying Torvalds as David out to slay the giant, Bill Gates, Microsoft's cofounder and CEO.

      Torvalds said he had no qualms with Gates's or Microsoft's financial success—he simply detested poorly engineered software. By 1999 an estimated seven million computers were running on Linux, still available free of charge, and many major software companies had announced plans to support it. Meanwhile, Torvalds had taken a position with Transmeta Corp., owned by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, working on a top-secret project that many in the high-tech community assumed would involve some future assault on the Microsoft empire.

Anthony G. Craine

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Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

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