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Real Leaders: Top 24 Computer-Industry Executives in 2004

November 23, 2004

The CRN has an interesting section on the Top 25 IT Executives of 2004. Some names won't be surprising: Steve Balmer (CEO of Microsoft) and Michael Dell (Chairman of Dell). However, one name may be somewhat surprising, especially to those not well acquainted with the field: Linus Torvalds (fellow of the Open Source Development Labs) comes in as the most influential executive in the computer-industry. Torvalds was also interviewed. Quoting from the article:

He’s neither a chief executive nor a chairman. He holds no executive title. And just last year, he accepted his first paying gig in the Linux industry that he founded.

Yet Linus Torvalds, the 34-year-old Finnish programmer and composer of the Linux kernel, is being honored as CRN’s most influential executive of 2004 because of his devotion to the Linux development process for nearly 15 years. It’s been a watershed year for Linux and the open-source movement, and Torvalds had a lot to do with it.

For Linus Torvalds, being in the industry is apparently a vocation, and not a profession. During a time when the Linux kernel has been under attacks by SCO -- which has been illustrating the tragedy of the judicial commons by flooding it with baseless claims -- Torvalds stepped down from his job with Transmeta, and took up an official position in the GNU/Linux community, serving as a fellow in the Open Source Development Labs.

The progress which the Linux kernel (current stable version: 2.6) has made has forced companies such as Sun Microsystems, Apple, and Microsoft to take notice and alter their business models. Whereas others rail against the "established" Operating System in the computer-world, Linus simply does his job and voluntary coordinates the production of a good kernel, produced via thousands of voluntary contributors. If you build it, they will come. That is, if it is deemed useful by them (the individuals). Despite the misguided ideology by some followers, who believe that software is a utility, and, like electricity, ought to be owned and regulated for the public good, not privately owned by a handful of capitalists, neither Torvalds, nor the Open Source Software or Free Software movements, qua those movements, are about regulation of or interveneion in the free market.

Rather, these movements operate within the free market. While some of the individuals who consider themselves a part of the FS/OSS movement advocate State-intervention in the affairs of Microsoft, many of them do not, and most of them focus their actions on producing something of value. They have wisely chosen to avoid the political (parasitic) means of obtaining their ends. Rather, they have noticed certain facts about the software industry that they dislike, and have acted peacefully to change them and produce alternatives. What most FS/OSS developers tend to dislike about the software industry is the closed proprietary nature of development. Traditionally, development and code were open and available for all to see. Others simply feel that the open development method is superior for practical purposes.

What is interesting is that an order has been established without any State intervention. There are standards. Linus' vanilla kernel is considered the standard by the GNU/Linux community. There are various spin-offs of that standard, but everything is benchmarked against that standard. The position was not obtained by force or bullying. Rather, it is the result of completely voluntary interaction. Namely, the superiority of Linus' judgement in matters regarding the Linux kernel has become widely known. He's established a brand name, so to speak.

So, how is it that anything gets done with regards to the Linux kernel? Just like any other social net where the State has not intervene, results come from the voluntary interactions of individuals. Developers work on the Linux kernel because that's their highest ranked alternative. How is it that improvements are made? How, that is, are priorities set? Firstly, developers do receive the benefit of prices. Companies like RedHat pay developers to work on the features that their customers have deemed the most important. Through an intermediated process, there is a profits-and-losses test.

Of course, many developers are not paid for their contribution to the Linux kernel. Why do they do it, and how do they prioritize? They may participate for the following reasons: (1) They enjoy doing so; (2) They use the features that they make; (3) To establish reputation. The prioritize by personal preferences. Does the developer prefer to work on a fundamental technical issue, such as improving stability performance, or security? Or do they want to work on a fundamental user-issue, such as improving learnability and useability? Or do they want to simply add new features? Or do they want to cease their involement and do something else? It is personal preference, rankings on their value scale. They make use prices and wages to determine how much time they'll devote to something that won't bring them any monetary profit. The decisions of those also seeking reputation may be affected by anticipated reaction. Those writing code for the Linux kernel are at liberty to write anything they want. However, a piece of code that makes the Linux kernel start a microwave isn't going to be accepted by Linus; thus, it won't be in the standard "vanilla" kernel.

At the core of Linus' development of the Linux kernel is the concept of private property. Namely, the right of an individual to decide what goes and what does not go into his version of a piece of software.

In conclusion, I think that the FS/OSS development model may be an interesting topic for analysis among Austrians. It is related to one of the questions that some Austrians have been concerned with: can non-profit organizations operate efficiently?

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