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Linux inventor Torvalds shares Millennium Technology Prize

'Leader of free world' gets prize, cheque and plaudits

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Linux inventor Linus Torvalds has been announced as the joint winner of the 2012 Millennium Technology Prize along with Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka.

The men will share a $1.3 million (£830,000) prize pot awarded by the Technology Academy of Finland in recognition of their very different but equally remarkable achievements.

Torvalds’ CV probably needs little introduction beyond stating that he conceived the first Linux kernel in 1991, a small figurative acorn from which has grown into arguably the most influential piece of software in computing history thanks to the efforts of possibly millions of collaborators.

"Linus Torvalds's work has kept the web open for the pursuit of knowledge and the benefit of humanity, not simply for financial interests," Dr Ainomaija Haarla, president of Technology Academy Finland, was reported as saying during the presentation.

"This recognition is particularly important to me, given that it's given by the Technology Academy of Finland," said Torvalds in his acceptance address.

"I'd also like to thank all the people I've worked with, who have helped make the project not only such a technical success, but have made it so fun and interesting."

Despite the difficult and sometimes arcane politics of open source development, Torvalds is as close as it gets to a god in software, rated by the tech community more highly even than money men and marketers such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs.

To the general public he is less well known even though the software lives of every computer and Internet user are invisibly touched by the results of his core idea of open source development many times every day.

"Hey, I've had job offers, but I've really tried to make it very clear to everybody that what I appreciate most is my neutral status, and it really turns out that I think all the companies involved with Linux really do prefer things that way too," he told the BBC during a recent interview.

"I seriously believe that even though the Linux kernel has become a big thing for a number of large companies, people really do appreciate how nice it is that I don't work for any of them."

That’s true today but there is the matter of the interesting but ultimately fruitless time in the 1990s at chip startup, Transmeta. With the Crusoe processor gaining no traction, Torvalds left in 2003, leaving the operation as stranded as the ill-chosen character Robinson who gave the firm its name.

The company’s ideas of very-long instruction word (VLIW) processing might sound modish now, but the low power ambitions could be seen as way ahead of their time.

The relatively new Millennium Prize (awarded every two years) has been described as technology’s Nobel Prize, but it is probably easier to judge its rank by the list of notable past winners, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee.


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