'Almost Anybody Can Have An Idea' — Linus Torvalds

from the obvious,-really dept

A constant theme here on Techdirt is that it’s not the idea that’s crucial, but the execution. Here’s someone who seems to agree:

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.

The person speaking those words — Linus Torvalds — certainly hasn’t stumbled much. In January 1992, only about 100 people in the world were using his Linux kernel, which he had written as a 21-year-old student in his Helsinki bedroom, on a PC with 4MB of RAM. Twenty years later, Linux sits at the heart of some 300 million Android devices, with 850,000 more being added every day, and runs 91% of the world’s top 500 supercomputing systems.

The idea of writing a kernel for Richard Stallman’s GNU operating system was obvious to everyone — it was the key piece still missing. In fact, a year before Torvalds started Linux, Stallman himself had begun working on a version called the Hurd, along with a few fellow coders of his Free Software Foundation.

Despite this impeccable pedigree, the Hurd is being used today by only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions running Linux — further evidence that it’s really not the idea, but the execution that counts.

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Comments on “'Almost Anybody Can Have An Idea' — Linus Torvalds”

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Marcel de Jong (profile) says:


How does one take an idea? Do you lose the ability to think if someone has the same idea as you do?

Lets see, idea theft, oooh I know:
– Finding Nemo
– Shark tales
Seemed a bit fishy to me.


– A bug’s life
– Antz
Something buzzing yet?


– Kung-fu Panda
– Skunk-fu
Or do we need to karate-chop it into you?

All of them cartoon movies or cartoon series based around a similar idea, and often even released in about the same time. Idea theft? Maybe, but can you prove it? Furthermore did one hurt the sales of the other? No!

Anonymous Coward says:


Do you know how many people have had a cool idea for a new shiny and cool operating system?

Pretty much ever CS student.

Of those, do you know how many actually began implementing said idea?

Probably a handful.

And of those that did start trying to implement said idea, do you know how many gave up after a month of work (which amount to printing a few characters on the screen)?

Probably all of them.

Ideas are cheap. Implementation is hard.

PaulT (profile) says:


“It’s just unfair”

Indeed. But, you only have yourself to blame if someone else is willing to put in the work to do something with that idea and you haven’t. An idea is worthless unless something comes from it. There’s also to very real possiblity that you’re not as unique as you think you are, and someone came up with the same idea independently.

“That’s not ‘sharing’, that’s ‘taking’.”

No, it’s not. You still have the idea, you just haven’t bothered doing anything with it. Nothing’s been “taken”, just as unauthorised duplication means nothing’s been “stolen”. You may have lost the ability to capitalise and on the idea and monopolise it, but nothing’s been taken.

I swear, one day the ACs will actually understand this basic, fundamental point and stop going off onto pointless attacks and tangents.

PaulT (profile) says:


“Do you lose the ability to think if someone has the same idea as you do?”

I get the feeling that some of these people are merely control freaks. It’s not enough that they can make a profit, or that they can make a living, they have to both monopolise it and stop any use whatsoever that they’re not paid for – even if this ultimately damages them. Even if someone else came up with the same idea independently, they’d still demand to be paid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Response to: Anonymous Coward on Apr 27th, 2012 @ 2:02am

No, that’s you being an entitled opportunist. Get off the pedestal already.

You’re like those pretentious, clueless people who have an idea for a game, find a bunch of programmers and say:

> Hey guys, I’ve got this wonderful idea, just need somebody to implement it. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? I’ll be the leader/idea person and take credit.

Also, its impossible for two people, on the other side of the world and totally unaware of each other, to have the same idea, right? I mean, its not like people can own thought or anything.

Its not even plagiarism, as others have said. Plagiarism is when you take credit for someone’s concrete work, like research and not some idea.

Richard (profile) says:


It’s just unfair if you haven’t had an idea, and decide to copy mine without asking me.

No it isn’t!

If you think that way you will never be happy because you will always be worried that someone else is profiting from ideas that you didn’t have the will or skill to develop. Take it too far and you will worry yourself into an early grave.

Look at what happened to Paul Heckel and Wilbur Wright if you don’t believe me.

abc gum says:

from the Reg link:
“It started out as a simple Intel 386/486-compatible monolithic Unix clone”

I do not believe it is a correct statement to say Linux was/is a Unix clone. The term “clone” implies identical, which Linux is not. I have read from reliable sources that Linux was written from scratch, to claim it is a clone is simply wrong.

Two items can appear to be similar with interfaces that behave in near identical fashion and yet under the hood things are completely different. To call one a clone of the other is incorrect regardless of how similar it appears to the casual observer.

artp (profile) says:

Obligatory GNU/Linux comment

The idea of writing a kernel for Richard Stallman’s GNU operating system was obvious to everyone — it was the key piece still missing.

It wasn’t obvious to write the kernel until the supporting cast was written. Or to put it another way — the kernel wasn’t a key piece until the supporting utilities were written. The kernel couldn’t be written first. Most people seem to miss that small detail. Linux grew in the field of GNU.

As Linus said, it wasn’t the idea, it was the implementation. I am glad Linux has succeeded. I use it every day. I would probably be using some ancient copy of Concurrent DOS/86 otherwise, with somebodies cobbled-up drivers inserted to make it work with modern hardware. Thank God nobody is the gatekeeper on trying things out.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:


I do not believe it is a correct statement to say Linux was/is a Unix clone. The term “clone” implies identical, which Linux is not. I have read from reliable sources that Linux was written from scratch, to claim it is a clone is simply wrong.

It is…and it isn’t.

Linux uses many Unix concepts. Then again, so does Hurd. So does Plan 9. So does Solaris, AIX, HP-UX. So OpenBSD, FreeBSD, NetBSD, DragonflyBSD. So do…a lot of operating systems.

Unix uses many Multics concepts. Then again, so do…

Alright, you get the idea. The point is that many years of operating system research and implementation have resulted in a set of concepts that lots of people think are good ideas, for instance, the paradigm that “everything is a file”. Linus, being a smart and clueful guy, built on top of all that and designed/built Linux to use the subset that he deemed suitable for his project. As it turns out, it’s a fairly big subset, and that has proven to be a wise choice.

Many of these operating systems also share naming conventions, commands, APIs, libraries, etc. Again, this is a wise choice.

So Linux is and isn’t a clone. On the surface, it’s a Unix work-alike with shells and filesystems and an API and all that. Internally, it’s got completely different code. You can, if you want, think of all of the Unix/Linux variants as different kinds of race cars: this one is a F1, that one is an Indy car, etc. They all have four wheels, an engine, exhaust, fuel tank, etc., they all do roughly similar things, and they share many technological features, but there are also many nuances that distinguish them.

(Oh, Windows? 1974 Ford Pinto.)

All this similarity is neither good nor bad: it just is. And it’s worth noting that this was a project (like many) done out of necessity: recall that at the time, there was quite a bit of ruckus over who owned Unix, and it wasn’t at all clear how that was going to be settled. Linus has remarked that if that situation hadn’t existed, he probably wouldn’t have written Linux: he would have just used Unix. So one of ironies of Linux is that it exists, in part, because of an IP dispute.

Rain Day says:


A Bug’s Life is also a take-off of the Magnificent Seven, which is also a take-off of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I’m sure the list could go on, but it certainly highlights the fact that good ideas are always going to be used by someone else. Always.

What’s interesting is how many different ways a single idea can be implemented. Just assign a painting idea to a hundred artists…maybe a barn and tree, for example. They’ll bring back 100 different interpretations of that single, rather mundane, idea, not all will be good, but some will be astoundingly creative…and no two will be exact.

There will always be creative people who can take an idea and do extraordinary things with it, things you never thought of, even if it was originally your idea.

Ideas are fluid things, if an idea comes to you and you can’t nail it down, it’ll just keep flowing till it finds someone who can.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Obligatory GNU/Linux comment

I never call it GNU/Linux because it doesn’t deserve to be. That’s just Stallman’s attempt to take credit for an idea that he announced in September 1983 (and yes, I have a copy of the original post to Usenet’s net.unix-wizards and net.usoft) but which didn’t get executed. (Well, not until recently.)

Calling it that is like calling my car a Goodyear/Subaru, as if the tire vendor — while certainly supplying a useful component of the vehicle — was responsible for the overall design and engineering of the car. Linux would still be Linux even if all the GNU tools were discarded and replaced with any of the alternatives out there, just as my car would still be a Subaru if I switched to Michelin tires.

The sad part is that Stallman has done so many other things, many of which I think are underappreciated, that I don’t think there’s any need to try to latch onto Linux. (In particular, his ardent support for free software has really opened a lot of minds and shifted the debate. I can’t think of anyone else who’s done more, and I also think that when this era is viewed in retrospect, it will become clear that he was way ahead of his time.)

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:


Merely having a POSIX interface (as in API) doesn’t make it a clone. That simply means that it complies with an interface specification, in the same way that (most) cars have a steering wheel, an accelerator on the right, a brake on the left, a speedometer in front, etc.

There are rather a lot of things inside Linux that are substantially architecturally different than Unix. This isn’t surprising: Linus & Company thought that they could do some things better/differently, and sometimes they were right. You’re not going to see that on the surface, because, after all, the end-user environment (at the command line) looks pretty much the same whether you’re on OpenBSD or Ubuntu or Solaris. But if you start reading the kernel code, or reading about the kernel code, then the differences become more visible. See, for example: Major Linux Vs UNIX Kernel Differences which talks about some of these.

Theo Crat says:

Stallman deserves a lot of credit for Linux whether the peanut gallery agrees or not. Not only did he come up with the idea, he also made implementing it possible. How far would Linux have gone without a free (as in speech) compiler? How far would Linux have gone without a free (as in speech) C library?

People love to attack and demean Stallman, but anyone who uses Linux owes just as much to him as they do Linus, and all the personal and political attacks in the world is not going to change that.

artp (profile) says:

Obligatory GNU/Linux comment

Maybe I should have used Linux/GNU instead. I suppose that some deeply buried brain cell wanted to troll. I don’t call it GNU/Linux, either, but I am amazed at those who get worked up over someone else calling it that. Credit where credit is due and all that.

I, too, remember Stallman’s announcement, but from a magazine article, not from a newsgroup. I was working in a Prime 750 powered Center for Computer Aided Design at the University of Iowa as a graduate research assistant after Reagan’s veto of the Synfuels bill changed my career path.

I expect that eventually, some third party will arise and write a new kernel based on GPL V3 that will be accepted because the litigation climate in the US will have passed Doomsday proportions. Linux will never become V3, and FSF is focused on Hurd, so it will have to be someone else.

Linus’ efforts were really needed at that time, but he had no desire to be a real part of Free Software, as far as I can see. He is focused on implementation, as his comments reveal. No problem with that. The GPL supports it. But Linux doesn’t fully support the GPL, so things must eventually change.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

?monolithic Unix clone?

The point is, ?Unix? is a trademark owned and managed by The Open Group. You only get to call your OS ?Unix? after you have 1) passed their compliance tests, and, more importantly, 2) paid them some significant sum of money.

Nobody working on Linux or offering Linux-based products has paid this money. Therefore, regardless of its functional capabilities, Linux is not ?Unix?, because it is not allowed to use the trademark.

What Linux is, is a POSIXish OS. Though even there, it has not officially passed the POSIX compliance tests. But it implements all the useful POSIX features, enough that software written for other POSIX systems can be ported with little trouble.

Or, alternatively, you might call it a ?*nix? system?part of a family of systems which are compatible with the common parts of ?official? Unix systems without being able to call themselves ?Unix?.

Solaris used to be the most prominent POSIX-compliant Unix system, and Linux certainly took a lot of ideas from Solaris. But now that all the Unix systems are pretty much in decline, Linux has become the one carrying the torch.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Linux vs Hurd

Interesting to see one particular source of opposition that Linux has weathered from the beginning, and that is from the crowd that thinks microkernels are a good idea. As others have pointed out, Stallman started working on his Hurd kernel before Torvalds got the idea for Linux, yet the latter reached production quality and started achieving widespread use while the former was still stuffing around trying to decide which microkernel core to build on.

And of course there was Andy Tanenbaum, who was quite ready to pronounce Linux ?obsolete? right out of the starting gate just because it wasn?t microkernel-based.

In sum, microkernels have been a ?good idea? for going on 30 years now, but they?ve never been able to overcome performance problems. In the meantime, Linux adopts a pragmatic design, namely a notionally monolithic kernel, but with loadable modules and other dynamic features. The net result is that Linux has adapted more easily than any other OS to a modern world of hot-pluggable hardware, where you don?t want to shut everything down just to add or remove a device.

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