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Linus Torvalds still wants Linux to take over the desktop

We all know Linus Torvalds doesn’t like keynotes. This year was the first time he kind of delivered a keynote at the Embedded Linux Conference. It took the form of a discussion with friend, fellow scuba diver and chief Linux and Open Source Technologist at Intel, Dirk Hohndel.

Here are some of the most interesting things Torvalds said during that discussion.

On Linux kernel

The latest Linux kernel release 4.6 -rc2 , which was released just before the event, is one of the larger releases Torvalds has made in the last couple of years. This release added support for yet another file system, orangeFS, bringing the number of supported file systems to 35. (Remind me, how many file systems do Mac OS X and Windows support?)

Despite the bigger release Torvalds was happy that there was nothing "revolutionary" in this release because it has reached a "fairly stable plateau,” he said.  “We’ve gone past that stage where we rewrite whole subsystems.”

25 years of Linux

Torvalds announced the kernel back in 1991 and this August Linux will turn 25 years old. Hohndel asked him that at what point in these 25 years Torvalds realized that one day “you would use your Linux phone to connect through Linux based routers to a high powered Linux based data center when AI helps you pick which Linux based device to buy next?”

Torvalds replied that "it didn’t happen overnight. There’s no single point where I was surprised, really. The surprising hardware is from 15 years ago when people started using Linux.” He noted that about 15 years ago, or slightly longer, we started seeing these odd embedded uses. The first one he remembers was a gas pump that was running Linux. “They wanted to monetize their gas pumps by showing commercials on them. It was running Linux. That made me go, ‘Whoa.’ Then everything else, all the other Linux uses, have been very gradual, and a lot of them have been completely invisible. There’s a lot of Linux uses that even I don’t at all see, and I’m not aware of.”

Failure of Linux on the desktop

While Linux pretty much dominates almost every walk of our lives, even on the consumer devices like smartphones and smart TVs, it has not had the same success on the desktop. What does Torvalds think about it? Is Linux a failure on the desktop? Not really. “The desktop hasn’t really taken over the world like Linux has in many other areas, but just looking at my own use, my desktop looks so much better than I ever could have imagined. Despite the fact that I’m known for sometimes not being very polite to some of the desktop UI people, because I want to get my work done. Pretty is not my primary thing. I actually am very happy with the Linux desktop, and I started the project for my own needs, and my needs are very much fulfilled. That’s why, to me, it’s not a failure. I would obviously love for Linux to take over that world too, but it turns out it’s a really hard area to enter. I’m still working on it. It’s been 25 years. I can do this for another 25. I’ll wear them down.”

What if he was not writing the kernel

Hohndel asked if Linus was not a kernel guy, what would he have done in the embedded, hardware space. Torvalds isn’t very fond of his soldering skills, saying “I’ve destroyed things with a soldering iron many times. I’m not really set out to do hardware. I’m just looking at all the cool toys that I would love to have had available to me when I was a teenager, and I was playing around with computers, and all these embedded boards that you can buy, whether it’s a Raspberry Pi, or Beagle board, Minnowboard, or anything like that. There’s tons of them. If I wasn’t doing kernels, I would probably be playing around with them. The great part is, if you aren’t great at soldering, and you end up destroying a couple, you can just buy a new one.”

Time for a second career?

Hohndel asked whether, since Torvalds’ children are in college now, is he looking at the second inning of his career, wanting to do something different? Torvalds sounded content with his current job, saying “No. Not really. I really have been doing Linux for 25 years, and it’s really interesting. I don’t actually do coding anymore, as people hopefully know, that all I do is, I end up overseeing, and doing pull requests, and shouting at people when the pull requests don’t work.”

What’s his vision for future?

When Hohndel asked Torvalds about his plans for the future in terms of years, months, weeks, days or hours. Torvalds said, “I actually have a plan for 24 minutes. I always say that I don’t know where Linux will be. The only thing I care about is that I will make sure we do the best thing we can that day. If you take care of the details, I think the big picture follows. There was not a lot of planning involved in Linux to begin with. There really hasn’t been a lot of planning involved ever, and that should really blow people’s mind, how little planning there was.”

“There was no person, certainly not me, that says, ‘Now we need to have maintainer-ship of this area, and you need to spread out and do this collaboratively over people,’ it happened naturally. I don’t make five year plans. I think trying to make five year plans is a fool’s errand, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. My planning tends to be, I know what’s going on this merge window, I see what’s coming the next one, and then sometimes when making decisions, people ask me, ‘Should we do A or B?’ I kind of have a longer range plan. I know what hardware is coming out two years from now. I kind of have that kind of plan, but not a lot of details,” said Torvalds.

“I think it’s been part of what’s been great about Linux, is the fact that I haven’t had a vision, and very few people had vision," said Torvalds. "I take that back. Lots of people had visions, but they’re completely different. People know where they want to drive Linux, but there’s no coherent plan, and it’s actually, I think, what made Linux be a fairly well balanced system, because there was nobody who said, ‘This is the direction, and we’re going that direction, whether it’s right or wrong.’ We just spread out and did a little bit of everything.”

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