Linus Torvalds' Obscene Rant Highlights Linux’s Hardware Woes

In an expletive-laced video, Linux creator Linus Torvalds blasts hardware vendor Nvidia as “the single worst company we have ever dealt with,” in response to a question on Nvidia driver support in the Linux operating system.

The statement, posted to YouTube and making the rounds over the weekend, was made during an interview and audience Q&A session at Finland’s Aalto University, where Torvalds visited last week after co-receiving the prestigious Millennium Technology Award.

Responding to an audience member’s laments about Nvidia’s lack of support for Linux, Torvalds enthusiastically agreed with her concerns.

“I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I’m very happy to say that it’s the exception rather than the rule. And I’m also happy to very publicly point out that Nvidia has been one of the worst trouble spots we’ve had with hardware manufacturers. And that is really sad because Nvidia tries to sell chips - a lot of chips - into the Android market, and Nvidia has been the single worst company we have ever dealt with.

“So Nvidia? Fuck you!” Torvalds concluded, extending the middle-finger gesture right at the camera recording the event. To laughter and applause.

Nvidia’s reputation within the Linux community has never been well-regarded. Although the graphics processing company started providing Linux support for its devices as early as 1999, that support has often been haphazard in execution and never open, as the Linux development community would prefer.

In order for any particular hardware device to run on an operating system like Linux, Windows or Mac OS X, a hardware manufacturer must provide driver software that will enable developers to make their code communicate with the device. Because of its huge market share, Microsoft has very rarely had issues with hardware vendors not supplying drivers. Apple doesn’t have the problem because it controls the core hardware that runs OS X.

Linux's Longstanding Driver Issues

But Linux has always had problems with getting hardware vendors to provide proper - or sometimes any - driver support for their hardware, which Torvalds went on to detail after dinging Nvidia:

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that other companies are perfect, either. We have had companies that just don’t care. We’ve had companies that felt that Linux wasn’t a big enough market. We’ve had situations like that,” Torvalds told the crowded university classroom.

And those situations are plentiful. Gigabyte, for instance, once publicly responded that users running Linux on one of its motherboards and having problems with a certain power regression features should just quit Linux and install Windows instead.

That same forum on the Phoronix website recently posed the open question “Where Are the Biggest Problems With Linux?” and many of the responses still cite hardware driver difficulties as serious concerns.

In the case of Nvidia, the company does provide Linux drivers, but they are often maligned as broken. Emphasizing intellectual property and contractual concerns, Nvidia has released only the binary executable versions of these drivers, which makes it much harder to solve compatibility issues between driver and operating system.

This rankles Linux developers, who would prefer the actual driver source code in order to design better interfaces between OS and hardware.

It is not clear if the gap between Nvidia and Linux will be closed anytime soon. There are indications that the desktop market may be shrinking, and Linux’s market share on the desktop has always been very small. Given Torvalds' public treatment of Nvidia, it would not be terribly surprising to see the vendor simply wash its hands of Linux.

Servers to the Rescue?

What may prevent that is Nvidia’s line of GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) for accelerated servers. Linux is still very large in the server market, and Nvidia might not want to cut itself off from that revenue stream just because of Torvalds' incendiary remarks.

Indeed, it is Linux’s strong presence in the server and cloud space that keeps hardware vendors interested in the operating system. Makers of desktop-specific hardware, on the other hand, may hear Torvalds' remarks and start to rethink their own commitments to Linux on the desktop. If that happens, we might see a lot more angry rants from Mr. Torvalds.