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Torvalds' Baby Comes of Age

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Linux

No matter what strides the new generation of open-source companies make, they all owe a big debt to Linus Torvalds. In 1991 the Finnish programmer started Linux as a project at the University of Helsinki. Fourteen years later the reverberations are still being felt. Thanks to support from giant companies such as Dell Computer (DELL ) and IBM (IBM ), Linux is now commonplace on big corporate servers -- posting 11 consecutive quarters of growth, according to market researcher IDC.

Hardware companies are selling more than $1 billion in servers to run Linux every quarter, while sales of servers running proprietary software continue to fall. And now, slowly but surely, Linux is making inroads on the desktop as well. According to IBM, 10 million desktops ran Linux in 2004 -- a 40% jump from a year ago.

COMFORTABLE DISTANCE. That progress has been an important foot in the door for all open-source companies. Marc Fleury, chief executive of open-source middleware company JBoss, describes the Linux operating system pioneered by Torvalds as the older brother who fought the tough battles and was able to get the curfew extended and the keys to the car, so that life was a lot easier for the rest of the open-source world.

But Torvalds doesn't relish the role of older sibling. He's reclusive, working from home just outside Portland, Ore., where he lives with his wife and three daughters. And he generally shies away from commenting on other businesses in the open-source or proprietary world. He works for Open Source Development Labs, a Beaverton (Ore.) nonprofit organization that administers and evangelizes the use of Linux in businesses.

In an e-mail exchange with BusinessWeek Online editors, Torvalds discusses his thoughts on where open source is heading and the challenges the Linux community faces. Edited excerpts of the exchange follow:

Full Interview.

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