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'I'm no visionary': Torvalds up for $1.3m life-changing gong

Anyone who's used the Linux supremo's Git tool certainly agrees

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Open-source poster child Linus Torvalds, who kickstarted development of the Linux operating system kernel, has been nominated for the €1m Millennium Technology Prize - but says he's "no visionary" and is surprised Linux has been so successful.

Torvalds and stem cell engineer Dr Shinya Yamanaka are finalists for the gong - one of the world's top awards for science and handed out once every two years by the Technology Academy of Finland. The award, worth £817k ($1.3m), recognises technology innovations that improve the quality of human life.

Dr Yamanaka's discovery of a new way to make pluripotent stem cells that did not rely on harvesting material from embryos has allowed scientists all over the world to make significant advances in drug research and biotechnology.

Torvalds started on his homemade kernel in 1991, and his work has grown into a free operating system that is used globally. It started out as a simple Intel 386/486-compatible monolithic Unix clone and was developed in the then 21-year-old student's spare time after he grew sick of microkernel-based Minix. It gathered more and more features and ports to other architectures as contributors piled in source code under the GNU free software licence.

Although it runs on a tiny percentage of desktop computers, Linux is at the heart of tons of consumer electronics, at least half of the world's internet-facing servers, 93 per cent of supercomputers, and is the kernel of Android - the dominant mobile operating system.

Interviewed about the contribution of Linux to the world, Torvalds - also known for developing source code management tool Git - was modest in an interview with the academy:

One of the main reasons I think Linux came to be successful in the first place was that I never had very lofty goals. The goalposts for me were always a few weeks out - never some kind of "one day, this will change the world". It was much more pedestrian than that, and I actually think that's the only way to make real progress: one small step at a time, not looking too far ahead to see the details.

People like to idolize the "ideas" and "inspiration", but in the end, almost anybody can have an idea. Getting things actually done is where people stumble.

In contrast perhaps to one of the biggest tech game-changers of our time - billionaire biz baron Steve Jobs - Torvalds said: "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."

The Finland-born software engineer revealed his love for low-level programming stemmed from learning how to write code on his grandfather's Commodore VIC-20 and control the bare metal at the age of 12:

What really drove early development was the fact that I was playing around with the low-level details of the machine and wanted to learn all about how it worked at a very low level. It's how I had grown up programming: working with the machine directly on top of the hardware, accessing all the devices by hand, and mostly using assembly code.

Regarding the impact of Linux on everyday lives, he added: "I don't really care all that much. I still do it for the technology, and because I think it's tons of fun to develop things in this very 'social' open model.

"Software is too important in the modern world not to be developed through open sources. 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." ®

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