Linus Torvalds guards his anonymity, even as his operating system is a giant in the push for shared software.
PORTLAND — He goes unrecognized in Portland’s coffee shops. He rarely shows up at his suburban Beaverton office. And while Linus Torvalds is a cult figure among computer enthusiasts worldwide, he’s essentially invisible in his new home state.
Torvalds invented Linux, a populist computer operating system that’s become the underdog alternative to Microsoft Windows. At age 35, the Finnish programmer is the superstar of the global open-source movement — an informal collective dedicated to sharing, rather than selling, software.
Once confined to the fringes of computing, the movement Torvalds ignited has sparked a multibillion-dollar challenge to technology’s old guard.
That movement has made Torvalds an inspiration to legions of anti-establishment hackers, but he resists being cast as a crusader. Intensely private, Torvalds moved to Oregon a year ago, having mastered the trick of balancing his insular lifestyle with a career that made him famous.
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So while battles rage over the future of computing, Torvalds spends his days playing with his young daughters in a secluded home south of Portland and quietly managing Linux’s development from a computer in his basement.
“Well, it’s a nice basement,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong.”
Oregon, with its Wi-Fi-in-the-park work ethic and low-key vibe, might be the natural place for someone of Torvalds’ disposition. A sort of anti-celebrity, he is ambivalent about fame and content to stay nestled at home in a tony cluster of million-dollar houses atop densely forested hills.
He said he goes out so infrequently that he rarely puts the top up on his convertible Mercedes — even in Oregon’s rainy winters. Most days are spent at home e-mailing programmers on aspects of Linux’s evolution and pausing on sunny days for bike rides into Lake Oswego for coffee.
The only place people recognize him, Torvalds said, is when he’s shopping at Fry’s Electronics, a geek hangout.
“I haven’t seen a lot of Oregon,” Torvalds said, “and Oregon hasn’t seen a lot of me.”
Not a computer nerd
Cyber-celebrities such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs surround themselves with people who manage their image and time. Getting in touch with Torvalds is no more difficult than sending an e-mail, because his address is readily available on the World Wide Web.
Getting a response to that e-mail, however, can be next to impossible.
“It’s easy to ignore. That’s one of the reasons I like e-mail,” Torvalds said. “You can really choose what you want to concentrate on.”
Torvalds usually concentrates on technical matters. He works for Open Source Development Labs, a Beaverton-based industry consortium that promotes Linux, but he’s been to the office only a half-dozen times.
“As far as I’m concerned, the main reason for going to the office is you end up going out to lunch,” he said.
During lunch recently in Portland, Torvalds, in a white polo shirt with neatly combed hair, didn’t look like the “asocial” computer nerd he claimed to be. He shed his glasses a few years ago after laser eye surgery and speaks with just a trace of an accent — pronouncing California, for example, roughly the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does.
For someone grounded almost entirely in e-mail, Torvalds turns out to be an easy conversationalist with a puckish, self-deprecating sense of humor. He explains his success as the fortuitous product of dueling personality quirks.
“I’m lazy, but I get easily bored. That’s a good combination,” he said. “I don’t want to do something I don’t have to do, but on the other hand, just sitting around and flipping channels is really, really, really boring. So that’s where I think most of my motivation comes from, is finding something really interesting to be involved in.”
Torvalds found computers at age 11 and was hooked. Ten years later, while studying at the University of Helsinki, he posted a note on a computer message board seeking to collaborate on a new operating system, called Linux after its creator.
Linux quickly grew into a group project for software developers around the world. By giving it away and letting anyone peek at the computer code that makes it run, Torvalds created a flexible alternative to rigid systems such as Windows, which is protected from changes by anyone outside Microsoft.
Developed initially by a ragtag collection of loosely organized software developers, Linux is now backed by major corporations such as IBM and Intel. Roughly one in 10 high-end computer servers — used to network computers — comes loaded with Linux, and sales of Linux servers are growing three times faster than those of Windows in the $50 billion market.
To some, open source represents an almost spiritual cause, bringing free software to the masses and sticking a finger in the eye of multinational corporations. While Torvalds thinks Linux will eventually replace proprietary systems such as Windows, he sees the battle in practical, not ideological, terms.
“A lot of people kind of expect me to care about all these humanitarian problems, and I don’t,” he said, laughing. Open source is just “a wonderful way of doing things, and I think it’s a lot more fun to do it this way than to be at a company and do programming the old-fashioned way.”
The Linux revolution has nonetheless grown into a computing empire to rival Microsoft, and Torvalds is sometimes called its benevolent dictator, holding together the coalition of companies and software developers that maintain and develop the system.
Torvalds’ mild temperament serves him well in that role, said Randy Kalmeta, a program director at IBM’s Beaverton office, home base for its Linux efforts.
“He’s kind of the guy who’s always steady in the storm,” Kalmeta said. “He keeps people focused, and he keeps himself focused.”
Torvalds eventually moved to the United States to work for a Silicon Valley startup during the Internet boom. Two years ago, when Torvalds came to Portland for the wedding of a close friend, bridegroom Dirk Hohndel took him on a tour of the city.
“He’d heard a lot about the fact that life in Oregon is at a more human pace, that people are more interested in neighbors and friends and not everything is about how much you’re going to make on your next” stock offering, Hohndel said.
Torvalds said his family tired of Silicon Valley’s suburban anonymity and uniform technology culture. He and his wife, Tove, a former Finnish karate champion, decided to move to Oregon to find a more vibrant community for their daughters, ages 4, 7 and 8.
In the first year, Torvalds said they’ve found what they were looking for: neighbors they know well and friends within walking distance for the kids.
“I actually like having stuff nearby, even though I never go to it,” he said. “I like having a small downtown, and I like knowing that I could, if I wanted to, do things. That makes me happy.”
“And then,” Torvalds continued, “I can ignore it and do my own thing anyway.”