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Linus the hippie challenges
Bill Gates

In the youthful world of computers the geniuses are also young. One of them, a Finn called Linus Torvalds, is only 28, but his tender age has not prevented him from mounting a challenge to one of the world's wealthiest men, Bill Gates, owner of the software giant Microsoft. The Linux operating system that Linus has developed is not a business, but rather an ideal, indeed a message: Torvalds wants to give his brainchild to everyone free. The idea works.

It is difficult for anyone visiting the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington to believe that a Finnish computer science lecturer could defy success built on billions. In fact, Linux is effective precisely because its basis is quite the opposite: it can both be used and developed completely free of fees or royalties. The Linux headquarters is in Linus' head and its developers are dispersed all over the world; 8.5 million Linux users swear by Linus Torvalds. A thousand or so amateur enthusiasts are constantly developing the system. Whenever someone comes up with an improvement or new function, Linus checks it and then posts a revised version of his operating system on the Internet for anyone to download - free.

Linus Torvalds' unusual success story - one in which success is not measured in money - began in the early 1990s. When he wanted a good operating system for his personal computer, there was no inexpensive version of Unix to be had, so he developed one himself. His international fame began growing when he put the system on the Internet and invited everyone to evaluate it. Linux caught on rapidly as computer clubs distributed it, free of charge as its inventor had requested. However, distributing the system free began to be a strain on clubs' finances, so Linus came up with another solution: he introduced a licensing arrangement whereby anyone can charge as much as they want for the Linux system, but without having to pay him a commission. Now there are companies in Linus' present home, Silicon Valley in California, which sell Linux CD-ROMs and a Linux magazine is also published there and sold all over the world. Linus Torvalds himself does not receive a penny. Even more important, anyone either unwilling or unable to pay for the latest Linux versions can download them free from the Internet.

Idealistic genius

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Last summer, the respected American business magazine Forbes put Linus Torvalds on its cover and presented him as a cyber-age hippie under the headline "Peace, love and software". In the magazine's view, Linux is the long-awaited weapon to attack the hegemony of Microsoft's Windows. A growing horde of enthusiastic and inventive amateurs is daunting competition for even a giant company. Linus is an Internet star. When Forbes used a search engine to find documents mentioning Tom Cruise and Linus Torvalds, the latter won by 20,419 to 16,604.

Naturally, Linux has prompted a fierce and emotional debate on the Internet. Torvalds is seen as the only person who can thwart Bill Gates' efforts to create a global monopoly. Some commentators have even compared Gates to the Beast in the Book of Revelation or to a dragon, which only St. Linus can slay.

To all outward appearances, Linus Torvalds lives like any other neighbourhood boy. He has a regular job with a company called Transmeta, which is so secretive that neither he nor anyone else is prepared to say a word about what it does. He lives a few tens of kilometres from San Francisco in Santa Clara. He did not wish to meet the interviewer in a restaurant, explaining that he hardly ever frequents them. Instead, he suggested "there beside the fountain" in Ghirardelli Square. The only things that one can discuss with him are computers and software, which are both work and hobby for this young man who is a god to so many. In Linus Torvalds' brain, the whole world is networked. Yet he still does not want any money for his world-famous Linux. True, sometimes his admirers have sent him a few hundred dollars for Christmas, as a gift of course. Linus is an odd idealist - a mighty hippie- nerd in his own distinctive way.

Linux is a powerful feature of today and may be an even bigger factor in the future. Indeed, who can say that in the next millennium all computer programmes will be free for anyone to use and develop in the same way?

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