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The father of invention

The story of Linux, from the mouth of its creator. Books hed: dek:

It may come as a surprise, but when Linus Torvalds began developing the Linux operating system back in 1992, he wasn’t aiming to strike it rich in the tech market, and he wasn’t interested in challenging Microsoft’s dominance of the desktop. He wasn’t even hoping to prove that open-source code would lead to innovation. Rather, as Torvalds explains in the title of his first book, “Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary” (HarperBusiness, $26 hardcover), the first open-source operating system came to life because its creator was fascinated by computers, programming them was fun, and his code was, as he puts it, “always, um, perfect.”

In his funny, candid, and personal narrative, written in collaboration with David Diamond (a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Wired), Torvalds takes readers back to the early years, when Friday nights as a teenager meant locking himself up in his bedroom closet, nibbling on dry pasta, and programming his Sinclair QL. In the process he shows that he did not merely have a passion for computing; computers were the only thing he cared about.

If Torvalds’s story of how the birth of a nerd led to the birth of an operating system reveals one truth, it’s that some of the best innovation often does not happen by design, but rather, simple necessity. Something as influential as Linux doesn’t come from nowhere, and “Just for Fun” does a nice job of explaining the elements of Torvalds’s upbringing that led to his creation. Torvalds grew up in Helsinki, Finland, in the 1970s and ’80s, a time and place where there was no Internet and precious few printed resources for curious young minds.

Fortunately for Linux fans, the teen-age do-it-yourselfer found that it was often easier–and faster–to write his own software code than it was to scour the few catalogues that existed at the time, then wait for hardware or software products to be shipped from the United States or England.

And luckily, when Torvalds realized the OS he was using in college was inadequate, he decided to create his own, with the help of his online peers. The result was Linux. And over the course of the last decade, much to his surprise, the operating system has not only become the poster child of the open-source movement, it also has succeeded in edging its way onto the OS playing field and has been labeled one of the first real threats to Microsoft Windows.

Linux fans, programmers, and anyone with an affinity for computers will enjoy reading Torvalds’s witty account of growing up in the remote regions of Scandinavia, emigrating to Silicon Valley, and discovering first-hand the power of the Internet. His search for a few simple suggestions about crafting a compelling operating system led to the largest worldwide collaboration project in history. And given the uncertainty surrounding the tech market today, this story of a true innovator’s accidental fortune is one that we might do well to emulate, or at least learn from.

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