An Interview with Lars Wirzenius

Our series of unexpurgated interviews with Linux Kernel pioneers begins with this e-conversation with Lars Wirzenius.

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 you get a copy from your nearest newsstand, or your nearest Linux Journal web site. If you have already read the profiles, our unexpurgated versions of the original interviews, 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 for the next several weeks. So sit back and enjoy a few words from some of the folks who helped make Linux possible!

--David Penn

An Interview with Lars Wirzenius

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

Lars Wirzenius: Linus showed me a program that had two threads that wrote A's and B's, respectively, to the screen. That was the beginning; it evolved into something more interesting later.

I was Linus's friend and fellow student at the University of Helsinki in 1991, when Linux started, so it was natural to follow things closely from the beginning. See http://www.iki.fi/liw/texts/index.html#linux-anecdotes for some more information.

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?

Lars: FreeBSD didn't exist then. 386BSD did, but it wouldn't have worked on my computer, since it required a 387 co-processor. I used SCO Xenix from fall 1991 to spring or summer of 1992, until Linux matured enough to be a usable environment for writing code.

Windows wasn't interesting in 1991 and 1992, since it didn't offer memory protection, and that was necessary since it made for a much nicer programming environment.

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

Lars: The only code I wrote to the kernel was a part of the printk routine, which prints out messages to the console. More specifically, the part that formats the message in memory before it is printed, named sprintf.

Most of my efforts have gone into things like the Linux Documentation Project, which I helped found; moderating the comp.os.linux.announce newsgroup; and helping maintain the Debian distribution. My own free software programming has been on the application side, not the kernel.

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

Lars: The most important reason for picking Linux over the competition was that it worked on my computer, whereas 386BSD wouldn't have. The second most important reason was that I could always phone Linus when I had a problem.

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?

Lars: The GNU project was extremely important for Linux, because it had all the important user-level utilities available already. The Hurd factor was large for the first year or two, when it was still thought that Hurd would be available quickly.

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?

Lars: I don't think I ever even thought about it. It was all so natural.

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?

Lars: I'm working full-time writing free software, specifically the WAP and SMS gateway called Kannel. My employer is Wapit. I still maintain packages for Debian in my free time, although not as much as I used to, since working full-time in a quick-paced project, especially as the team leader, is rather stressful. Therefore, I tend to relax by having fun with friends, reading, watching movies and playing role-playing games.

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

Lars: Richard Stallman, because he keeps us on the path of righteousness.

LJ: What do you think is the most important addition or change that is 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?

Lars: The biggest threat is probably people and companies stopping to co-operate and starting to pull too much in their own direction. I don't see anything really big that is missing, except for desktop applications, but even that is coming along fairly nicely.

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

Lars: I think the current popularity is very nice indeed. I also think Linux could have survived on the fringes.

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?

Lars: Linux would have survived, but the commercialization is good, as long as co-operation continues.

LJ: How can Linux compete with MS in the desktop sector, and will we be able to hold the commercial sector if we don't take the desktop as well? Can we take the desktop without ruining the spirit of Linux by dumbing it down? Where will our next areas of growth and expansion be?

Lars: We can dominate the server market without the desktop, and for (say) software development, we already have good enough tools, although the UI's even for that on Windows is better. Writing a good desktop does not require making it dumb.

I'm very bad at predicting the future, so I won't guess.

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 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?

Lars: I can live with (other) people using commercial applications, as long as file formats are documented so that interactions with free software are possible. Proprietary file formats or protocols are really, really bad.

I run Linux mostly for practical reasons, because it is the environment where I feel most at home, but also for philosophical reasons. Software freedom is important, even though I don't require all software to be free.

LJ: Do you think the community should support only open-source/free software? How would the community survive hard times if there were to be a lag or down time in the continuing success of the open-source methodology? Is the free software philosophy strong enough and with enough adherents to pull us through?

Lars: I think priority needs to be given to free software as far as the community's support is concerned. Companies producing proprietary software are supposed to do their own support.

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

Lars: I like the GPL best, for philosophical reasons. Anything that makes it simple to use supposedly free software is a good enough license. However, I feel that the proliferation of licenses is bad in itself - any one license can be good, but the sheer number of them is bad. People and companies should try very hard to use one of the existing ones.

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

Lars: Since I've been having lots of fun programming, I can't ever feel it's been wasted. However, there most certainly is a world outside of computers.

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