Freedom or Ease of Use? A Note on Torvalds’ Strange Remarks

with 18 comments

I’ve just stumbled upon a disappointing interview with Linus Torvalds which left me utterly confused about Mr. Torvalds views on GNU/Linux distributions. He is certainly a prominent figure and I always look up to him but I think he is much misunderstood about the goal of distros and especially about the role of Debian. This paragraph especially drew my attention:

“I’ve tried it a couple of times over the years, mainly because the thing Ubuntu did so well was make Debian usable. I always felt that Debian was a pointless exercise because to me, the point of a distribution is to make everything easy. Easy to install, to be pretty and to be friendly and Ubuntu did that to Debian.”

Maybe some GNU/Linux experts can help me here but I never thought that the point of a distro is to make everything easier or prettier. I always thought the the main point of a GNU/Linux distribution is to bring more freedom into our world. Do prettier interfaces which are basically a mash up of third-party themes and fonts make an operating system better? How Mr. Torvalds define the word “usable” is a mystery I need to know. Besides, what’s the point of ‘ease of use’ when a software is too unstable and filled with bloated packages? Mr. Torvalds says he is not an Ubuntu user and yet he believes that Ubuntu had made Debian usable by easy intstallation and pretty GUI. He must have missed the fact that many people use Debian for much more important reasons such as stability and more freedom which is missing in many derivatives. It’s utter nonsense to say I found Ubuntu useful but not Debian. It’s like saying I like dogs but I don’t like animals.

I’m pretty much still a GNU/Linux newbie(5-months of experience at the outside); yet when I’m tying to choose a distro I look for those that are more about freedom and choice rather than prettier interfaces. If Mr. Torvalds want to praise a particular distro I think there are much better ways to make his point rather than making controversial remarks about respectable distros.


Written by Woody

February 2, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Posted in General

18 Responses

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  1. Well, if you think that Torvalds-remark is controversial, you truely havent seen much of him yet! 😉 He’s also shunned GNOME for hiding settings from users and said everyone should use KDE… Though I don’t really think he actually uses KDE.

    Linus Torvalds certainly is not Mr nice-guy, he’s not a freedom-fighter; he’s got a good sense of humour, a sharp tongue, is quick-witted and a good deal more grounded in reality than certain GNU-persons.


    February 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm

  2. Put out of its context the quote sounds odd. Linus is maybe more known for his at times harsh criticism, but the article you refer to also shows that he’s able to be diplomatic.

    Linus didn’t talk about all Linux users, as if everyone found Debian less useful and friendly than Ubuntu. He also said:

    “I’ve always had a few problems [with Ubuntu.] It’s not very friendly to kernel developers, and I just end up giving up. That’s kind of okay, because clearly I am not the target audience. I think that Ubuntu has done a really, really good job making Linux available to a wider and different audience, the kind of audience that comes from a Windows and Apple background.”

    In other words, other distributions are better suited for the likes of him, developers, probably the ones that cares for the bits and bolts of Linux, and also for the ones who wants a distribution that adheres to a more pure Linux design. Hence Ubuntu wasn’t usable for him, but he showed courtesy to the one he was speaking to, a representative of a Ubuntu blog.

    You can talk about freedom with typical Windows users until your face gets blue, but it would more likely put them off. I’m not a fan of Ubuntu, and have my thoughts about how invisible the world “linux” has become on its home page. Still I don’t think it’s productive to pick a fight over every such matter.


    February 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  3. I think I’ve seen in the past that most of the computers at his house are Windows not Linux. I don’t think he is worried about the desktop.


    February 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm

  4. To each their own. There has to be some reason that Ubuntu is the largest desktop distro out there and I am guessing the Linus hit the point square on.

    In general, most Linux desktop users just want things to work and if things look nice, that is a bonus. I would say that the vast number of Linux desktop users really don’t care about RMS’s ideas of freedom or the really dumb debate of Linux vs GNU/Linux vs Linux/GNU.

    I am not arguing Debian is bad. On the contrary, I run it on three Linksys NSLU2s that serve up files and email and act as an OpenVPN gateway. I don’t, however, use it on my desktop for mainly the reasons the Linus states. I want to have something that is easy to use, looks nice, and allows me to do what I want regardless of RMS’s opinion of freedom.


    February 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

  5. It’s supposed to be easy to use, that’s what people expect these days.
    Who’s going to spend $$$$$ on a new comp and look at a crappy desktop which is difficult to use ?

    I am a long time Linux user / supporter , Linux does need to be easier to use and has made excellent progress over the last couple of years, Debian Squeeze has improved, but is still some way behind Ubuntu.


    February 3, 2011 at 12:26 am

  6. I’m a normal guy not an uber brilliant mind like Linux AND I have no problem running Debian in my desktop since 2003.


    February 3, 2011 at 1:02 am

  7. I mean Linus, not Linux.


    February 3, 2011 at 1:03 am

  8. Well, I expect he tossed it out as a crowd pleaser, given the blogger’s distribution of choice. Playing to the crowd, perhaps. To be fair, he didn’t just mention, to quote you, “prettier interfaces”; by “friendly” he was obviously referring to ease and stability of use. But you’re right, it is a flip remark. I think he was just shooting from the hip; I bet if someone tackled him on it he’d probably temper his criticism. I wouldn’t put too much stock into his comment. Sometimes even Homer nods.


    February 3, 2011 at 2:27 am

  9. Linus didn’t invent free software, or even open source software….he invented the linux kernal. if you want all the free software stuff, check out RMS

    the point of a distro IS to make things easier and prettier. all the tools are out there for me and you and everyone else to create our very own linux system, but we would rather have someone else do that for us.
    the reason we choose a linux distro is as varied as the distros themselves, but dont kid yourself that Linus is a free software advocate…he is a “my computer should get out of my way so i can work” kind of person.
    He didn’t give away his kernal out of sheer kindness or to start some political movement, it was cause he needed help building it.


    February 3, 2011 at 2:32 am

  10. I look at Linux as a tool, I want it to do what I need to do and not lop off any of my fingers while doing it.

    Open Source purity isn’t a religious issue with me, it is nice to have but I’d rather have my graphics card and WiFi work than not.

    I do shop with the “open” issue in mind but I’m not tossing a room full of older computers over the issue.

    Heck, I even use OpenSuse as my main operating system, it works I know it fairly well and it is easy for me to offer phone support on it. I do forbid mono-core at install time but that is more of a safety issue for me than a purity thing.

    Stan Miller

    February 3, 2011 at 3:02 am

  11. Well,

    I am not Torvalds, so I don’t know what he really meant. But as [Torvalds] is a kernel developer, I am guessing making his own “distro” from the bottoms up isn’t that hard of a task for him. Maybe he runs his own linux flavor? Most distributions aim at desktop “general” users nowadays (why else would you use linux? as a server? well then you dont even need all the fancy bells and whistles…) and any linux distro can do that……. so whats the point of having 10,000 distros if they are just recompiled packages?)It seems Ubuntu beat Debian to the punch when it came to that Linux niche of the casual Linux (desktop) user. Which is what I [personally] believe Torvalds was talking about. If your going to talk about “freedom,” you should discuss how Debian is finally going to make itself a truly free linux distribution by removing non-free code from the kernel. Also what bloat, and mixed third party themes are you referring to? It seems you may be taking his words out of context. As all distros generally** use the same/similar software, such as desktop managers. Gnome on Ubuntu and Debian isn’t funadementally different then Gnome on Fedora or Archlinux. Its still Gnome. Whats your point? Torvalds brought you linux, I don’t see why your bashing him…..

    Jose Cuervo

    February 3, 2011 at 3:31 am

  12. Linus is egoist provocateur, he always speaks how his ego is mountain sized. He uses old version of Fedora that is more unusable, unstable, and user-unfriendly than any debian or ubuntu release. In any interview, his goal is to praise “his” work, innovation and genius mind, and to spit on something that has any connection to Free Software Foundation or RMS. Funny thing is, he only wrote 0.1% of kernel, and for the rest of it, thousands of others are responsible. But he won’t tell you this in interview, he’ll let the journalist be admired like seeing a god in him. He has sold his “ass” to corporations, like Intel, IBM, etc. He made many quality people (programmers) left the kernel project (he chased them off), because they dared to oppose him. He is like a kid that got picked up (randomly) to play in Hollywood movie, and now he thinks he is Jesus descendant. Linux kernel wouldn’t miss him a bit if he left now, only more quality people would (re-)join the project.


    February 3, 2011 at 6:03 am

  13. Corporations dictate the direction linux is going to. Desktop, freedom? These are just random side-effects, as far as Linus is concerned. He hasn’t written a single line of code in years (he wrote initial git using shell scripting (years ago), than told others to do it properly. Ok, idea is good, but he as a programmer sucks). Good example is that “200 line patch that does miracles”. When he saw it, he said it must be included in kernel, it’s that good. But someone from Red Hat told him it can already be done, for very long time, in userspace.He didn’t believe it and asked for “code”. He got code (few lines of shell script), and although he stated previously “no policy should be in kernel”, he just ought to be right from the start and said “it has to go into kernel”. This only shows it’s either his way or the highway, and that he has only the very basic idea what’s in the kernel these days. Next thing – he made Linux trademark of himself, so anybody that uses that word in commercial purposes must pay him a fee (or otherwise make a deal with him). You think he shares that income with other contributors (who wrote 99.9% of kernel)? Yeah, right.


    February 3, 2011 at 11:53 am

    • Judged by your own text I suppose you wouldn’t be the easiest project leader to have either, without doubt causing some to leave. If a developer left the kernel project because of a conflict with Linus, it’s fair to believe that individual demands as much space as does Linus. Hence shifting power between such individuals only shifts the power balance between already existing camps, and doesn’t solve any problem, if there’s a problem. So who is decide who’s best for the job? Every person sees the world through his own eyes.

      What Linus is able to or not able to do, is quite irrelevant, isn’t it? No sane person would expect Linus to both be the project leader and at the same commit a lot of code. That would be an organisational error. You through a lot of accusations around, as if you embodied a superior just judge. Some of your points might be correct, but still it doesn’t matter much. Independent of how much code Linus has contributed, he started the project, and that could be the end of the story, if not… Yes, if not Linus decided to adhere to GPL and invite others to join him. Maybe he doesn’t share any money with you, but who said he was obliged to give away any code to begin with?

      The equation is quite simple: either you cooperate, either you choose some other kernel, which better complies to your set of standards. I might also have opinions about Linus; I don’t see him as any god; I sometimes wish he was less a technocrat and engaged more in none-code questions that concerns the future benefit of users. Nevertheless I can’t understand this mentality, of believing that I or you have the right to clamp in and condemn their work, and demand that it all should be done differently.

      Rejoice over your own achievement instead, and make the best of them.


      February 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  14. You are clearly missing the point. Linus, not being a zealot, simply does not state the obvious. When you choose between different GNU/Linux distributions, you ignore whatever is the same and pay attention to differences. Fedora is not less free than Debian so freedom makes no difference choosing between them.


    February 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm

  15. Linus actually uses Fedora as his main system

    – this also shows he does have a sense of humour.

    In relation to the desktop Linus has said that :-

    What are your thoughts on the Linux desktop and its broader adoption?

    ‘Linus Torvalds: Well, I don’t know about broader adoption, but the Linux desktop is why I got into Linux in the first place. I mean, I have never, ever cared about really anything BUT the Linux desktop.’


    February 3, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  16. When you all say he wrote .1% of the kernel, that may be true now (show me some evidence though?) since so many people are contributing.. but he wrote the initial kernel the initial OS.. so I’ll say AGAIN: all of you Torvalds-hating zealots should recognize that no Torvalds means no Linux….. Go use BSD.

    Jose Cuervo

    February 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    • I had to be *that* guy . [quote]but he wrote the initial kernel the initial OS.. [/quote]
      Linux is not an OS, Linux is a kernel.


      October 16, 2013 at 12:19 am

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