Linus Torvalds, a shy 34-year-old Finnish programmer, may seem an unlikely choice to be one of the world's top managers. But Linux, the software project he created 13 years ago while a university student, is now one of the most powerful influences on the computer world. The operating system, built by volunteers and distributed in commercial and free versions, is popular with corporations because it's typically cheaper than Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) Windows and offers customers an alternative to being locked into Microsoft products. And Linux has been causing Microsoft headaches aplenty: According to market researcher IDC (IDC ), Linux held 21% of the server computer market in 2003, compared with 58% for Windows.
Torvalds, now employed as a fellow by Linux trade group Open Source Development Labs Inc., coordinates the output of a few dozen volunteer assistants and more than 1,000 programmers scattered around the globe. They contribute code for the kernel -- or core piece -- of Linux. He also sets the rules for dozens of tech companies that have lined up behind Linux, including IBM (IBM ), Dell (DELL ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), and Intel (INTC ).
While basic versions of the operating system are available for free, Linux is having a considerable financial impact. IDC expects the total market for Linux devices and software to increase from $11 billion last year to $35.7 billion by 2008. Torvalds has quipped that his job is a lot like "herding cats." But these cats are all inclined to move in only one direction -- his.