Linux Just Turned Twenty Five: A Look Back
The Humblest Origins
It’s been a bit past 25 years since the world was graced with the Linux operating system.
Technically, Linux’s story starts in 1991 when Icelandic wunderkind Linus Torvalds posted to the comp.os.minix board (that was a Usenet message board, kind of like the Reddit of its day), announcing he was starting an Open-Source clone of Unix as “just a hobby.”
He self-deprecatingly compared it to GNU, the militantly Free Software Unix-alike project started by Richard Stallman.
Stallman’s pure GNU system still remains largely a pipe dream, though a distribution of the GNU HURD is obtainable if you tickle the right hosting server. But for a “just a hobby” system, Linux took off into the stratosphere and Linus Torvalds is now the global godfather of the FOSS (Free / Open Source Software) movement. Meanwhile, Stallman has the backseat, more of the spiritual voice of the FOSS movement than its chief technician. His license, the GNU GPL (General Public License), became the license under which Linux and most of its earliest software would be released.
The first Linux distributions didn’t hit the servers for downloads until 1992 and didn’t fully adopt the GPL until 1993, at practically the brink of the WWW wave of the home computer revolution.
While Linus Torvalds was hacking away at his kernel, another computer scientist named Sir Tim Berners-Lee was laying out the scheme for the first web browser and the foundation of the World Wide Web as we know it.
Linux just happened to come along right when computers stopped being hobbyist toys and office-only staples and started becoming a must-have utility in every home.
The story of Linux is like that all along, a series of lucky accidents and near-misses. It’s a marvel to have anything like it now, and its story is still evolving…
The Desktop Wars
Another lucky accident is the advent of the Intel 386 architecture for home computers. The beige boxes, as they became known, were cheap IBM clones, mass-marketed while IBM itself seemed baffled as to how to market their own product. No matter, the fast, efficient design of these boxes meant they could be churned out and sold cheaply, and just so happened to couple with the new WWW access with a phone modem.
There was another contender for that desktop market on the PC: Microsoft. Everybody boo and hiss! We’re not out to make this whole article about Microsoft, but it bears mentioning that Microsoft Windows fought a bitter war to try to eradicate Linux for much of its history. After all, Microsoft became one of the world’s most powerful companies in the 1990s, and their main competitor was a free operating system.
They were paranoid all out of proportion to the actual Linux-friendly user base, so they waged war against it on every front. And… they failed. In fact, they failed so hard that Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation now and even released their own Linux distro, cue the flying pigs.
Now, let’s not overstate the case here: Microsoft Windows is still a very big deal. They’re still the most dominant operating system on the home consumer desktop. The key words there are “home” as opposed to professional, “consumer” as opposed to producer, and “desktop” as opposed to laptops, tablets, smartphones, servers, embedded devices, supercomputers, even video game console systems.
Microsoft fought so long and hard to hammer down the home desktop PC user of the 1990s that it had no steam left to compete on any other front.
Of course, Linux was just one of many available Unix-like options. Its closest neighbor is BSD and the various sub-systems. Had it not been for the licensing hassles of Unix proper, none of this would have existed.
Systems like Linux and BSD were a workaround for the problem of who owned Unix. And way back there was Apple, itself running an embedded BSD in its hardware, but much more antagonized against Microsoft itself than anything Linux did.
We think of Bill Gates now as a kindly philanthropist, but we forget for the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, his company was the chief robber baron of the world, getting hit with anti-trust lawsuits in both the US and EU.
Their paranoia of Linux got them launching campaigns against it with everything from astroturf smear campaigns to patent lawsuits through puppet companies such as SCO. Gates did author the “open letter to hobbyists” in 1976, only the beginning of his paranoia towards the concept of Free and Open Source Software.
How Did Linux Thrive?
You’d think making an enemy out of the world’s richest man (which is what Microsoft founder Bill Gates was by age 31) would have been a suicidal move.
But in fact, Torvalds was smarter than he even knew when he chose the humble penguin for his operating system’s mascot. Penguins are hardy survivors, able to live in the harshest conditions on Earth. They’re versatile, being one of the few birds to swim. And they’re very sociable, finding strength in numbers.
Linux had a number of “evolutionary” advantages that just happened to benefit it in the long run:
- No overarching control by a company. Anybody could adapt it and distribute it.
- Continuous addition of support for various hardware over time.
- Need-driven, not profit-driven, so marginalized hardware that was no longer supported anywhere else found a home at Linux.
- For years, a stripped-down form of Linux was possible on a single 1.4MB floppy disk, as with Tom’s root-boot.
- Based on the security and stability of the Unix philosophy, of course.
That last ability would prove prophetic for Linux’s future. Modern users might have a hard time appreciating how miraculous this was, but a floppy disk, even in its heyday, was a pathetically small amount of storage. Even medium-sized software required multiple floppies for an install. Single-floppy Linux distros had a kernel, environment, admin tools, and a compiler. It was entirely possible to start from a floppy disk and bootstrap your way to a desktop. You’d do it just to amaze yourself. Later came the era of CD distros, which were again impressive because they could simply run live without installing, right from the CD-ROM. This era gave rise to many distros we’re familiar with today: Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, and derivatives.
But of course, system administrators are more familiar with the base install brands of Linux, whose venerated history goes way back. These were Red Hat (still a commercial contender), Slackware (the Arch of its day), and most especially the almighty Debian, which is still the foundation for most Linux distros today. Debian combined a super-smart package management system, allowing users to magically install software with a few keystrokes. This sounds silly now, but in, say, 2003, most computer users were used to the idea of software as something you had to drive to the store and buy. Run Debian and conjure whole suites of software out of thin air, and watch the spectators gawk.
Is The Android The New Linux Mascot?
Strangely enough, another lucky accident in Linux’s history is that any technology company, as long as Linux wasn’t a direct threat to their bottom line, became an ally of Linux.
IBM pledged support, Google ran Linux on their servers, and hardware devices always found Linux to be the first system to adapt to their hardware. “Will it run Linux?” became a stock question for every new gadget. And of course, Free and Open Source Software, in general, is the natural ally of STEM career workers, who just want to make their gadget work without being beholden to some corporation’s boilerplate EULA.
Teachers, librarians, scientists, and nobody less than the US Army found Linux and GNU software useful toward their end goals. Meanwhile, the US DoD even distributed SELinux, for “Security Enhanced.” We could go on all day but the point is, Linux had the habit of being the best tool available right when the problem-solvers of the world were looking for one.
Back when the desktop wars between Microsoft and Linux were hot, “The Year of Linux on the Desktop!” became the penguin battle-cry. Advocates for years struggled to sway the public, to not much avail. But finally the phone and then the smartphone era came along, and Google, suddenly in a position to chip into a piece of the next technology platform, picked Linux to adapt into the Android operating system.
How did that turn out? Well, Linux, through Android, now has the largest installed base of all general-purpose operating systems. Technically speaking, Linux won the desktop war… by moving on to the next “desktop.” In other words, like a penguin, it found an ecological niche and moved right in. It was inevitable, despite the drama on all sides.
Linus Torvalds today is still the figurehead of Linux, though he’s passed on control to a large hierarchy of developers. Richard Stallman is less than pleased with Google (seriously, nothing makes him happy, that’s kind of his job), but the GPL license lives on in phone software to this day.
And while, of course, commercial and industrial users will never abandon their desktop, they’re the ones who would run Microsoft only over their dead body in the first place. The home consumer, who just wants to surf websites (most likely making use of Linux-based web hosting, funnily enough) and play games, is just as happy with a phone.
After all those years of war, there’s peace in the land. Relatively speaking anyway.