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Q&A: Jon maddog Hall

We speak to the free software champion about where he thinks the industry is headed.

Jon maddog' Hall is a free software legend. He was a UNIX guru in the 70s (his number plate reads UNIX) and an early supporter of Linus Torvalds and Linux. He speaks to IT Pro about why free software is the future, why today's students can't cut it, why blackmail is sometimes needed and how Campus Party is going to inspire a new generation.

How did you start as a programmer in the first place?

I started off as an electrical engineer but I was drawn to programming because it's pure logic. As an engineer you're in the hands of the components. Things can go wrong for so many reasons you could have a bad component. But with programming it's instant gratification if something goes wrong then you look for your error and fix it. It was that and the fact that I was nearly electrocuted by 13,000 volts.

You famously don't use Microsoft products. Is that for philosophical reasons or because you just don't like them?

I believe that engineers should be using the product they're working on. If you're designing a PBX, then you should have a PBX on your desk. If you're developing a TV system, then you should be using that. I wonder: do engineers who work on Microsoft Office really use it? All the features? Do they really understand what users are up against?

I have always used UNIX systems. But I've known a UNIX product manager who hates UNIX but works on the system because he couldn't earn so much money elsewhere.

When did you become aware of the advantages of free software?

I was working for Digital Equipment. If I had some software, I'd maybe have 650 fixes for the next version of the product. I had about 500 engineers and I'd be told they could include 50 features. If I asked "what about the rest?" I'd be told they'd be in the next version. So I'd have to trim the list to 125 fixes because that was more manageable.

That's the problem with proprietary software. It takes too long to deliver those fixes. To take another example, I needed to create a patch for the Morris Worm [a piece of malware that was affecting Sendmail]. One version of our software was really old and the company didn't want to create a patch for it. I had to blackmail the company into letting me fix it. I said I'd go onto the internet and tell people about the software and how the company wasn't allowing it to be patched. I'd tell the whole world it was open

When did you first come across Linus Torvalds and the work he was doing?

In 1984, Richard Stallman created The GNU Project, and that led to different Berkeley BSDs.

GNU found its way into one company, Boeing. It had many different systems compilers were slightly different on every application which made things expensive to fix. Boeing used the GNU compiler suite, which was the cheaper option.

That was good, but the part that was missing was the kernel and that's what Linus Torvalds was working on. I didn't see the project at first, but when I saw what he was doing, I offered Linus an alpha-processor to take Linux from 32-bit to 64-bit.

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