% fortune -ae paul murphy

Marauding headlines: fallout from a Torvalds interview

A recent National Review story headlined Dumb Headline of the Day by Kevin Williamson contained this bit:

As any copy-editor will tell you, headline-composers are the most-read writers in any newspaper, followed by obituarists, the kind folks who write letters to the editor, and the intern who compiles the sports scores. Marquee op-ed columnists are about No. 11.

Headline writing is hard - largely because the headline should capture the essence of the story in very few words. Some people (like Mark Cappel) are good at this, others (like me) are bad at it, and still others just make stuff up.

Consider, as examples of two of these modes, these two headlines - both above stories about material gleaned from the transcripts of a recent Linux Foundation interview between Linus Torvalds and Jim Zemlin:

  1. Linus Torvalds on Why Users Aren't Flocking to Linux
  2. Torvalds: Microsoft is bluffing on patents

The first of these stories is by Scott Gilbertson. Here's a bit:

As always there's a laundry list of things Torvalds doesn't care about -Open Solaris and Sun, for instance- but his thoughts on the future of the Linux desktop are interesting, including this bit: "I have never, ever cared about really anything but the Linux desktop."

But according to Torvalds the reason Linux hasn't taken off is that most people are happy with the way things are. "If you act differently from Windows, even if you act in some ways better, it doesn't matter; better is worse if it's different."

This doesn't explain what users aren't flocking to desktop Linux - to grok that you have to look at a paragraph in which Gilbertson is speaking for himself:

Torvalds thinks that since the basic uses of the desktop have been established, changing it in some radical way is more likely to anger users than impress them. This goes a considerable way to explain why recent versions of both Windows and Mac OS X have largely been focused on 'eye candy' and visual/interactive improvements rather than revolutionary new features.

In other words, Gilbertson dismisses MacOS X as offering mere eye candy and either he or an editor puts this bullet in Torvalds's mouth - where, in reality, Torvalds's tendency to attack the things he's afraid of suggests that he believes the exact opposite.

What is unusual about this statement by Torvalds, incidently, is that it reflects a return to his pre-SCO persona - presumably signalling a belief on IBM's part that SCO really has been defeated. Thus this comment contradicts six years of server focus but is quite consistent with what he said in a 1993 interview with Mike Linksvayer of, at the time, Meta Magazine:

Meta: What are your short- and long-term goals for Linux?


[Linus]: In fact, the main goal of Linux might be called usability. I want the kernel to remain clean as far as the implementation is concerned, but when it really matters, a kind of pragmatic approach has generally been the main design issue: the most important thing is that it works well and people (which most emphatically includes me) want to use it. As an example, I've always wanted Linux to be POSIX, but that wasn't really as much a goal as a way to make porting user-level software easy. POSIX is just a small part of the POSIX standards don't really cover a lot of details that people expect from a Unix system.

The bottom line on that first headline, however, is that Torvalds didn't say it - and that's the opposite of the second one (that Microsoft is bluffing on patents) because he really did say something very much like that:

"They have been sued for patents by other people, but I don't think they've -- not that I've gone through any huge amount of law cases -- but I don't think they've generally used patents as a weapon," Torvalds said. "But they're perfectly happy to use anything at all as fear, uncertainty and doubt in the marketplace, and patents is just one thing where they say, 'Hey, isn't this convenient? We can use this as a PR force.'"

Between or beyond these two extremes is a missing elephant: not a single one of the related headlines or stories I saw reacted to what I thought was the most interesting thing in the interview: his concern that the quality requirements for new code mitigate against new programmers coming into the Linux development process.

Here's part of what Torvalds said on this:

Linus Torvalds: One of the problems is we have people who have so high criteria for what is acceptable or not that it scares away people who want to do new code and do new experiments.

We mustn't set the bar that high. New code, new drivers, there will be problems and I'd rather take them and then improve them than expect driver authors, especially when they stand outside the main tree and feel kind of like outsiders even though maybe they really are part of the same whole development community, but they feel like outsiders because their driver hasn't made it into the tree yet.

And then asking them to jump through hoops and make their driver perfect when they're standing there alone and don't have help; I think that's unfair. And there are people in the kernel community that feel that way that things have to be just right before you can accept them and I'm much more of a laissez-faire kind of person. We don't want to accept bad things, but on the other hand, hey, everything starts from less-than-perfect roots and it's much better to accept things that work but may not be perfect and then improve on them when we can all improve on them and all the different vendors can fix the small nagging issues they have instead of keeping them at arm's length until they're perfect because maybe they'll never be perfect without help.

That's a serious concern meriting real discussion - but no writer or editor dared stories with headlines like these (illustrating the middle mode):

  1. Linux too hard for programmers - says Linus
  2. Torvalds unhappy about community quality
  3. Linux entry barriers too high, says Linus
  4. Torvalds: We're too good to recruit
  5. Linux must let beginners fail - says Torvalds

And yet, I think he's pointing at a serious problem for the entire open source movement because he's really suggesting that the million eyeballs process could eventually prove self-limiting.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.