Friday, April 20

Linus Torvalds Appreciates Ubuntu's User Centric Approach


Linus Torvalds will be receiving Millennium Technology Award, one of the highest Technology Honors for his exceptional contribution to Linux kernel and open source.

The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded ever two years for a technological innovation by Technology Academy Finland. This year, Linus Torvalds, Linux's creator, and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, maker of a new way to create stem cells without the use of embryonic stem cells, are both laureates for the 2012 Millennium Technology Prize. The two innovators will share over a million Euros and the final winner will be announced by the President of the Republic of Finland in a special ceremony on June 13, 2012.

TechCrunch did a nice interview with Linus on this occasion. I will quote his views regarding Ubuntu, Desktop and Linux distributions here but you should read the full interview as its really great.

What are the major Linux distributions doing right, in general, and where are they falling short? Your recent Google+ rant about OpenSUSE’s security stance sheds some light on this, but I’d like to know more. Are formalized distributions a necessary evil? How much (if any) influence do you have with the distributions?

So I absolutely *love* the distributions, because they are doing all the things that I’m not interested in, and even very early on they started being a big support for the kernel, and driving all the things that most technical people (including very much me) didn’t tend to be interested in: ease of use, internationalization, nice packaging, just making things a good “experience”.

So I think distributions have been very instrumental in making Linux successful, and that whole thing started happening very early on (some of the first distributions started happening early 92 – on floppy disks).

So they aren’t even a “necessary evil” – they are a “necessary good”. They’ve been very instrumental in making Linux be what it is, both on a technical side, but *especially* on a ease of use and approachability side.

That said, exactly because they are so important, it does frustrate me when I hit things that I perceive to be steps backwards. The SUSE rant was about asking a non-technical user about a password that the non-technical user had absolutely no reason to even know, in a situation where it made no sense.

That kind of senseless user hostility is something that we’ve generally come away from (and some kernel people tend to dismiss Ubuntu, but I really think that Ubuntu has generally had the right approach, and been very user-centric).

The same thing is what frustrated me about many of the changes in Gnome 3. The whole “let’s make it clutter-free” was taken to the point where it was actually hard to get things done, and it wasn’t even obvious *how* to do things when you could do them. That kind of minimalist approach is not forward progress, it’s just UI people telling people “we know better”, even if it makes things harder to do. That kind of “things that used to be easy are suddenly hard or impossible” just drives me up the wall, and frustrates me.

As to my own influence: it really goes the other way. The distributions have huge influences on the kernel, and not only in the form of employing a lot of the engineers. I actively look to the distributions to see which parts of the kernel get used, and often when people suggest new features, one of the things that really clinches it for me is if a manager for some distribution speaks up and says “we’re already using that, because we needed it for xyz”.

Sure, I end up influencing them through what I merge, and how it’s done, but at the same time I really do see the distributions as one of the first users of the kernel, and the whole way we do releases (based on time, not features) is partly because that way distributions can plan ahead sanely. They know the release schedule to within a week or two, and we try very hard to be reliable and not do crazy things.

We have a very strict “no regressions” rule, for example, and a large part of that rule is so that people – very much including the people involved in distributions – don’t need to fear upgrades. If it used to work a certain way, we try very hard to make sure it continues to work that way. Sure, bugs happen, and some change may not be noticed in time, but on the whole I think a big part of kernel development is to try to make it as painless as possible for people to upgrade smoothly.

Because if you make upgrades painful, it just means that people will stay back.

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