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Who's the Greatest Geek of All Time?

By Katherine Noyes
Nov 17, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who are the greatest geeks of us all?

Who's the Greatest Geek of All Time?

That question -- posed in an Australian iTnews article, "The Top 10 Greatest Geeks of All Time" on Monday -- sparked quite a discussion in the blogosphere last week, garnering more than 1,300 Diggs and 280 comments by Friday.

Who was top of the list? We'll give you a hint: He's the father of our favorite operating system. Other notables on there? Richard Stallman in 9th position, and Paul Allen at 10.

'Long-Term Brilliance'

"Torvalds was always going to be in our top three but for consistent and long term brilliance we decided he had to get the top spot," explained the authors of article. "We have yet to see the full effect of Torvalds' invention on the computing sphere but it's going to be fun watching it develop."

It seems fairly safe to assume that few readers of these pages would debate Torvalds' topmost position. Where much of the debate arose, however, was on the rest of the list.

"There's some notables missing from this list," charged SupaDawg on Digg, for example. "Not including Jobs and Gates is asinine. Those two were visionary geeks. If not for them, the world would likely be a much different place."

What, No Gates?

What say you, dear readers? Should Gates or Jobs be on the list? LinuxInsider couldn't resist asking around.

"Linus Torvalds for greatest geek of all time, without a doubt," blogger Robert Pogson agreed. "He worked on a Master's project and changed the world."

Master's degree projects "are supposed to be about the state of the art, not making such a statement," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "Geeks are the last ones to know when they have changed the world."

Second place on Pogson's list would go to Stallman. "He laid the ground work," Pogson explained. "He spawned a generation of geeks who instantly valued Linus' project for the challenge that it was and the opportunity to make the world a better place."

One could argue that Stallman was "the head geek, but he tried and failed to bring Hurd in on time," Pogson added. "Linus showed how that kind of thing is done. We must give Linus high marks for project management."

Yes, Gates!

Then again, "I'd say Bill Gates has several reasons to be on that list," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. "Microsoft, like it or not, made computers cross the threshold from 'business tools' to 'personal devices.' This wouldn't have been as likely without Windows, and I do honor and respect that fact."

Of course, "if Windows hadn't been made as poorly as it had, the open source world would have a lot less contributors, users and innovators," Dean added. "People change and move operating systems because they fail to meet their needs. Without Windows failing so frequently, I shudder to think where Linux and the BSDs might be."

Another geek Dean would add to the list is Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Gilmore. "A longtime hacker, John is still active in several technology fields," Dean explained. "While no single accomplishment may rank up there with some of the things mentioned on the list, his overall accomplishments may have a much broader influence on computing today than say, Richard Stallman's."

Gilmore has been "a constant voice in the encryption arena, focusing on privacy and security of user data," Dean noted.

"Most of the guys on the list took a specific problem and used computers to solve that problem," he said. "John is different in the sense that he applies a consistent, principled concept (that is, freedom) and builds ways to apply that concept to various things, including computers. For including freedom in the very fabric of how we use computers, I applaud John Gilmore even if he doesn't make other users' lists."

'Interesting Omission'

Others saw it differently.

"Interesting list, interesting omission," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider. "I'm sure the one glaring omission many will cry foul over is Bill Gates. I happen to agree he does NOT belong on this list -- he would not even make my honorable mention list."

More deserving inclusions, in yagu's opinion?

"Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of modern times with a deep and abiding connection to the world," yagu said. "He had smarts, and he had a sense of humor about it."

Also "Bob Metcalf, one of the co-inventors of Ethernet, upon which most network topologies are based today (my opinion)," he added.

And, finally, "Bill Joy, author of 'vi' editor, one of the most nimble yet powerful text editors ever conceived," yagu explained.

'Microsoft's Linux Killer'?

Debating the relative geekiness of all the many contenders makes for interesting conversation, but meanwhile another, much more disturbing discussion was taking place on the blogs last week as well. Specifically, an alarm was sounded marking the existence of a new potential threat to Linux -- a threat called "Windows 7."

Computerworld's Preston Gralla was among the loudest ringers of the bell with his posts titled "Windows 7: Microsoft's Linux Killer?" "More reasons Windows 7 Will Kill Linux", and so on.

The topic was picked up by TechRepublic's Selena Frye, among others, even as other bloggers sounded separate alarms -- discussing charges that Linux "sucks" at being user friendly, for instance, or that Ubuntu has "lost its credibility."

Far be it from us to panic prematurely, but we can't help but wonder: Is Linux in trouble?

'That's a Stretch!'

"Wow, that's a stretch!" yagu asserted. "Microsoft stumbled badly with Vista, and are poised to do the same with Windows 7."

Linux will make or break itself, he added. "Linux maintains its high standing in the technical circles that count. Windows still looks in from the outside. Windows 7 won't change that, and if Microsoft stumbles with 7 as they did with Vista, their (Microsoft's) position worsens and Linux's improves."

Recent Microsoft iterations "promised much and delivered little," yagu added, "and because their hype didn't come close to their reality they tarnished the Microsoft brand. Meanwhile, Linux, much like the tortoise, moves steadily and methodically to truly improved product."

In short, "Microsoft seems to go for the sizzle, but Linux continues to bring the steak," yagu concluded. "Anyone predicting Windows 7 is somehow Linux's demise completely misses the point."

The Winning Tortoise?

Along similar lines, "Windows 7 is almost irrelevant to GNU/Linux," Pogson asserted. "M$ has shown it cannot produce what it promises on-time and under-budget, so what we have is what we are going to get for years. GNU/Linux beats that other OS clearly in the netbooks space, effortlessly taking a 30 percent share of seats."

With the economic downturn, "manufacturers are going to have to compete on price," Pogson pointed out. "M$ will be just another competitor in a year or so by the time '7 is a gleam in the customers' eyes. M$ has given GNU/Linux a head start of years and, like the tortoise and hare, the tortoise is going to win."

There's that tortoise comparison again!

'A Bit Narrowminded'

Putting it another way, Gralla "seems a bit narrowminded," Dean charged.

Linux is a kernel, and not always equivalent to desktop Linux, Dean pointed out.

"The narrow-mindedness that I speak of comes into play when attempting to make any judgment about 'Windows 7 killing Linux' based on a small subset of all computers" -- namely, netbooks, he said.

"Windows 7 may offer improvements and innovations, and good on Microsoft for delivering that," he said. "Competition benefits the entire software ecosystem and I'm sure FOSS hackers around the world will quickly adopt and adapt any useful innovations in Windows 7. I think there might be some pluses Windows 7 has over Linux, but will I sound Linux's death knell because of user preference in the netbook market? Not likely."

Friendly, Schmiendly

Indeed, "I don't see Windows 7 affecting Linux much," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed. "While faster than Vista, it will still be slower and more memory-hungry than XP. Meanwhile, Linux developers have been working to lower the Linux memory footprint."

As for Linux's purported unfriendliness to users? "Hardly!" yagu exclaimed. "There are excellent distributions out there that are as user friendly as it gets. User friendly? You bet! Same as Windows? Not exactly."

Several bloggers chalked up such unfriendliness fears to so much "whining."

'I'd Rate That Piece -1, Troll'

To wit: "Most of these whinings are irrelevant to a factory-installed distro with a GUI for installing printers, etc.," Pogson charged. "Get over it. GNU/Linux on the desktop is here. We have motherboards that boot into it in seconds. Anybody's grandmother can use it."

Such complaints "remind me of commercials for bathroom cleaning products that show how bad the 'other guy's' toilet brush is -- if you need to contort your face and body to use an insignificantly different product, you're probably doing it wrong," Slashdot editor Timothy Lord told LinuxInsider.

"Winders also fuzzes the line between kernel developers and all developers generally, which includes a lot of very smart UI and QA specialists, and ignores the overlap between any of these categories -- then, without evidence, accuses kernel developers of having 'no love' for users," Lord added. "On Slashdot, I'd rate that piece -1, Troll."

'It's Just Selective'

And finally, a philosophical perspective: "It was once said, 'Linux is very user friendly, it's just selective about who it becomes friends with,'" Dean noted, and "I'm not sure that's a bad thing. A crucial part of business is identifying your audience and targeting them."

It wasn't "Linux sucking" that caused the high return rates for Linux netbooks, Dean asserted. Rather, it was "not meeting customer expectations. Linux isn't user unfriendly, it's just not friendly to the same demographic targeted by Mac OS X."

Far from a problem, that, in turn, is actually a benefit, he added.

Strength, Not Weakness

"The flexibility and control that is derided in the desktop is what made Linux a candidate for use in Android and Openmoko and the variety of embedded devices becoming increasingly popular," Dean explained.

"Linux's best point is that it's what you make it," he said. "It might be grating to some people that they can't make it friendly for them, but for those that have that capacity, it's a very good thing.

"The great thing about choice in the market overall is that customers have choice," Dean concluded. "Mac OS X seems to have gotten the 'user friendly' part down pat for nonprogrammers, and until the people complaining step up and change the status quo, it's nothing more than another voice complaining."


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