A prize for Linux

LINUS Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, has been awarded the technology world’s equivalent of a Nobel prize, signaling the growing importance of the open source operating system he created in 1991.

Torvalds, now 42, is one of two winners this year of the Millennium Technology Prize, an award given once every two years to recognize a technological innovation that significantly improves the quality of human life today and in the future. Shinya Yamanaka, 49, the other winner this year, was honored for finding a new way to create stem cells without the use of embryonic stem cells.

The two laureates, who follow in the footsteps of past winners like the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, will be celebrated at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, in June, where they will share more than one million Euros in prize money.

The prize, organized by the Technology Academy of Finland, is one of the world’s largest, with candidates sought from around the world and from all fields of technology.

“We had many worthy nominations that we deliberated over, but ultimately we narrowed it down to these two candidates who have made such a significant impact in the field of computing and stem cell research,” says Dr. Ainomaija Haarla, president of Technology Academy Finland. “I hope this announcement will lead to added recognition for these extraordinary scientists and the technologies that they have developed. These two men may well be talked about for centuries to come.”

In honoring Torvalds, the awards body said the free availability of Linux on the Web caused a chain-reaction leading to further development and fine-tuning worth the equivalent of 73,000 man-years.

“Today millions use computers, smartphones and digital video recorders… run on Linux. Linus Torvalds’ achievements have had a great impact on shared software development, networking and the openness of the Web, making it accessible for millions, if not billions,” the academy says.

Torvalds acknowledges that his original goal in creating Linux was not all that lofty.

“I’ve never been a ‘visionary’ — the thing I tend to worry about is actual technical issues, and my goal has always been to just make sure the technical side of Linux (and other projects I’ve been involved in) have been as solid as possible.”

He adds, however, that Linux is significant because of the way it was developed and what it makes possible.

“Software is too important in the modern world not to be developed through open sources,” he says. “The real impact of Linux is as a way to allow people and companies to build on top of it to do their own thing. We’re finally getting to the point where ‘data is just data’, and we don’t have all these insane special communications channels for different forms of data.”

In a series of short interviews available on the Millennium Prize Web site, Torvalds talks about the operating system’s development and its significance.


On Linux development:

“It wasn’t even meant to be an operating system. I started it basically as a test project for my own amusement to learn about a new computer… and it grew. Originally it was just my own private project, just in my bedroom with me and my computer and I initially made it available to and told just a few people that, hey, I’ve done this project, I’ve worked on it for several months, and there were just a couple of people who had met over the Internet who were interested in operating systems. And I don’t even know how… it just kept growing. People told each other. We had some mailing lists. We had discussions on various newsgroups, and more and more people got involved. It took a long time. To some people it looks like it’s an overnight thing when they suddenly started hearing about Linux, but it…was years of slow growth [and] suddenly we’ve reached certain milestones that made it more approachable to more people.”


On who uses Linux:

“Most people probably use Linux without ever realizing it. You might use it when you use your cell phone, if you have an Android cell phone. If you’re ever on the Net, you probably use Google to look things up. Google runs Linux. Even if you don’t find Linux itself on your machine, the servers at the other end run Linux. But even in situations where you would not be aware that you’re using a computer — maybe when you’re using an ATM, or when you’re sitting on a long flight and watching a movie on your personal movie screen. Quite a lot of those are running Linux too.


On Linux milestones:

Most of Linux development has really been about gradual, small things… I mean, I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years… The one [milestone] that was the most memorable to me personally was very early on, when I realized that I didn’t actually know everybody who was involved anymore. This was just a few months after I started. It just dawned on me that people that I had never met and had never had anything to do with were actually using my creation and that was to me a big step…. When Oracle made their database available for Linux, that was a big thing, because that was something that validated Linux and said to people that this is not just somebody’s hobby operating system, this is not some academic exercise, this is actually ‘real Unix.’ So there’s been things like that. But on the whole, a lot of it has been just continual improvement and more people using it for different things.”


As a proud Linux user, I’ve had a button that reads “Linus Torvalds for President” pinned to my bulletin board for the last few years. So when I heard about his Millennium Technology Prize, I thought, “Well, it’s about time.”

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