An Interview with Pauline Middlelink

Our series of unexpurgated interviews with Linux kernel pioneers continue s with this e-conversation with Pauline Middlelink.

Welcome to the unexpurgated version of Linux Journal's Linux Kernel Who's Who. If you haven't yet seen our June 2000 issue, which features 40 profiles of some of the kernel's pioneers (hackers like Alan Cox, Dirk Hohndel, Mark Bolzern and, of course, Linus Torvalds), make sure to get a copy from your nearest newsstand - or your nearest Linux Journal web site.

Even if you have already read the profiles, our unexpurgated versions of the original interviews (which were e-mailed to each major contributor to the Linux kernel) may reveal a few surprises, and a lot more detail.

We'll be posting the original interviews here on the Linux Journal web site over the next several weeks. So sit back, and enjoy a few words from some of the folks who helped make Linux possible!

--David Penn

Linux Journal: How did you first learn about Linux? What were you doing in your own life at the time? (age, student, occupation, etc.)

Pauline Middlelink: When I was a student on the HIO here in Enschede, Holland, I was introduced to Xinu. Soon after that, I became interested in other Unices which were more "capable" (i.e., an illegal version of SCO UNIX and the free Minix). The Minix version especially spoke to me, since it contained source! An unheard-of phenomenon at that time. Being on the Minix lists, I heard rumors of some other OS based on Minix, and decided to check it out. Well ... I'm still checking :)

LJ: What attracted you to it, compared to FreeBSD, proprietary UNIX systems or lucrative areas such as Windows? What made you want to help with development?

Pauline: The source, and the way it did things. You could follow the changes in the source by the patches and develop a real gut feeling about the OS. Money was of no concern to me in those days, being a student, so Windows didn't speak to me, especially 3.1 without network support!

LJ: What part of Linux were you personally interested in and working on? Are you still involved with Linux development? If so, how?

Pauline: I started doing just little improvements to new patches I saw drifting by on the mailing list, and after that, when I got my own IP connection, developed a real itch in wanting to connect all my computers to the 'net. This called for some real programming, and since Alan Cox at the same time added code for NAT and such stuff, I immediately saw the connection and created the IP masquerading module. After a few iterations, this was approved by Alan and added to the kernel. Later, the ftp-rewriting modules were developed. Nowadays, I'm mainly interested in video4linux, for which I maintain the - in kernel - zoran driver and some VCR projects.

LJ: What was most important to you about Linux? What's the very best thing about Linux?

Pauline: The speed at which it progresses and the way you could participate in it. Normally, in those days, you would have to wait for your supplier to release a new version, which is almost always commercial/marketing-driven. Not so with Linux.

LJ: How important was the GNU project, and how did the GNU Hurd factor into your thinking? Should Linux be properly known as GNU/Linux?

Pauline: Very important. Without it, we have only a kernel without any real working tools. Minix came with its own set of limited tools, but it lacked the real UNIX feel. FSF/GNU provided this missing link. GNU Hurd never entered my thinking; it was promised a long time ago, and as of today, I never saw it working. It's okay to have discussions about monolithic and message-based kernels, but I tend to be pragmatic. Show me a working kernel, please. :) Linux, in my opinion, should not be known as GNU/Linux. It's the OS that counts. To me, GNU/Linux would denote a distribution, like Red Hat Linux. Hey, a distro made by GNU, why not?

LJ: What was it like to be working with others over the Internet at a time when several computer luminaries thought that organizing successful software development over the 'net was difficult, if not impossible? Did you realize how revolutionary this approach was?

Pauline: I never realized we were doing revolutionary stuff 'til I read the papers by Eric Raymond. At that time, I felt really proud :)

LJ: What are you doing with your life now? (occupation, family, etc.) What's a typical day like in your life? How do you find time for work and Linux, and how do you balance free software with the need to make a living (or the need to become rich)? What do you do for fun?

Pauline: Currently, I'm running my own small business which specializes in writing software and Internet consultancy. Furthermore, I'm one of the board members of a small Dutch Internet Provider (IAF). Of course, I still keep up with the latest developments, but sometimes time gets really short.

A typical day in my life starts out by reading my mail - lots of mail. Mainly these are questions from customers of IAF, some are work-related and some are private. 80:15:5, I would say. This takes all morning. Of course, I'm continuously interrupted by the phone, people asking for this and that ...

After business-closing hours, I keep working for a bit, tying up loose ends. During these hours, I find the time to work actively on the projects I'm involved in, but not all these projects are Linux-related!

I started living with my boyfriend (for 7 years now!) who also takes up some of my ample free time, but it is well-spent time, I hasten to add :)

Fun - funny you mentioned it, I have heard of the word, of course, but... but... I read a lot, SF mostly. No real physical activities, I found them too tiresome... :)

LJ: Who do you think, other than Linus, has had the most influence over the Linux community, and why?

Pauline: Alan Cox, who maintains the 2.2 series, has done a lot of stuff for Linux and is still on top of a lot of things, deserves an A+ in my book. David Miller as being the network guru deserves some praise, too. I would say some people in their field have a lot of influence (for IDE drivers, one looks at Andre; for SCSI, to Gerard, etc.) So it's difficult to say who has the most influence, but all are very gifted in their field!

LJ: What do you think is the most important addition or change needed by Linux in order for it to succeed further? In what direction does Linux development need to go? Where is Linux's future the brightest? What is the #1 biggest threat to Linux today?

Pauline: Full-blown USB. USB devices are crawling out of the wall everywhere, and not supporting all of them would be a deadly sin. For Linux to succeed more will not depend on the kernel itself. We need a good desktop with good office tools which are accessible to Joe Average, who is still a drag-and-drop kind of guy. Linux qualities are still at the development speed, and when looking at common usages, the server market. It makes a tremendous network/web/mail server with outstanding firewall capabilities, which will only get better in the upcoming 2.4 series.

The biggest threat to Linux would be if Linus got hit by a bus and couldn't manage to read his mail for four months. Of course, other people would stand up, but since there are a lot of capable people on the 'net, a lot more discussing would happen. Linus' word is law (most of the time *grin*), and people take his word as final. Not many people I know would dare to disagree with him in public :) So, not having Linus around would waste a lot of valuable time in discussions.

LJ: How do you feel about Linux's current popularity? Would you prefer it had stayed contained in the hacker community? Would it have survived on the fringes?

Pauline: I feed good about one side, bad about the other. I don't want Linux to be just a hype, which blows over when the next OS comes available. I don't really care for Joe Average; I just want a good OS. Selfish of me, I know. It would not have stayed in the hacker community, but for me, it would be sufficient to have Linux gain a good foothold in the server market. The user business is a difficult low-profit market, and doesn't bring much to us developers.

LJ: Would it have survived without the IPOs and financial backing? What impact has the commercialization of Linux had? How do you feel about Linux profiteering and the people who make millions off of other people's volunteered efforts?

Pauline: I think it would have survived without financial backing, but all development would have gone at a slower pace. Also, we would have seen good people go on in the business world and more new people starting. As it is now, the older guys stay around and help the newer people by preventing them from making the same mistakes they did. This, of course, speeds things up tremendously!

Other people taking advantage of Linux makes me unhappy sometimes, but than again, sometimes I get good feedback or even hardware as a way of saying thanks for my help in the community! Need I say more? Hacker's paradise :) I'm into it for the fame, not the money. Not that I don't make money from Linux; for my business, I regularly install Linux servers for customers, but I don't charge them for the OS, just for my time.

LJ: How do you feel about commercial applications being written for Linux, and proprietary software and protocols in general? Do you run Linux more for philosophical reasons or practical reasons? If something that appeared to be better came along, would people jump ship? Conversely, would we stay with Linux even if it somehow degenerated, took a wrong turn, or stopped progressing?

Pauline: Commercial apps are okay with me. I would not buy them, I think, if there was a free alternative on the Internet, but I wouldn't stop them. Proprietary software is okay, but don't force it on people. When I buy hardware, I want it to have enough information so I can write a Linux driver for it (if it isn't there already), or else I simply won't buy the card. So, most proprietary hardware is out in my book.

I don't think people would jump to an alternative OS if it came along. I think the Linux community would try to incorporate the good things of that OS and go on to other innovative designs. A wrong turn is all in the eye of the beholder. Some people think their patch is an absolute necessity for the kernel, and some don't. This will always be part of open-software development.

LJ: How do you feel about the different licenses? GPL, LGPL, QPL, etc?

Pauline: I like the concept of "I develop something for free; you may use it, but don't make money off of it, otherwise I want a piece of the cake". However this is legally phrased, I don't really care :)

LJ: Is there a world outside of computers? Are you ever afraid that you'll wake up one day and feel you wasted your life in front of a computer?

Pauline: No, not really. I have seen what influence computers have on current society, and am not afraid of that feeling. I am having some concern about getting behind in current developments. It's hard to know what is going on, and with the advent of the Internet and worldwide development, things can go incredibly fast.

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