Linux is the ultimate ideology of the technological world; it represents a utopian ideal whose history is fraught with tales of hope, courage, and struggle. It is the bane of the consumer market, and can lead a revolution in the technological world. Linux is an operating system, or OS. An operating system runs every other piece of software on your computer, such as word processors, games, and internet browsers. Some examples of operating systems are Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, etc. A special facet of Linux is that it’s free, and cannot be copyrighted. Its source code, the strings of text that make up the piece of software, is made available for editing and changes. This allows for thousands of programmers to change and improve the software to make it more useful and suited to their needs; thus allowing for the rapid development of Linux and other open source projects, because when millions of people are working on the same project, changes can be implemented faster than when a small group of programmers does the same thing. Linux is also the forerunner of a new business model called open source, software where the source code is available to everyone so that the software can be improved very quickly. Operating systems such as Windows are closed source; their source code is not made publicly available and is controlled by Microsoft.
Linux is important because it challenges all conventional business models. It has become a massive factor in the economy. For example, Red Hat, a company that sells a distribution of Linux, had its stock go from $40 to $105 in less than 6 months. IBM, as well as many other companies in the computer industry, has adopted Linux to run many of its servers for businesses around the world. The most popular aspect of Linux is that it allows for total freedom: it can be made to do just about anything. Anyone with the time and knowledge can completely change the desktop environment in which they work. Among the business and programming industry, Linux is the solution for many software problems. Linux has become a force to be reckoned with, and its history is quite interesting.
In the years before Linux, there were three main operating systems, Microsoft’s DOS (Disk Operating System), Apple's Macintosh OS, and UNIX. DOS was bought by Bill Gates from a Seattle hacker for $50,000. DOS snuck into every computer through clever marketing strategies; there were few other options. Apple’s Macintosh operating system was based on another type of computer called the Macintosh, but it wasn’t successful because Macintoshes were too expensive for the small PC users, and because the Mac OS was based on another computer setup, it was very software-limited. The only other viable operating system was UNIX, but in hopes of big money UNIX vendors priced their operating system too high for small PC users, and its source code, which was once taught in universities, was now closely guarded.
A solution seemed to show itself in MINIX, an alternative to the three main operating systems. MINIX was written by the Dutch professor Andrew S. Tenenbaum to educate his students on the inner-workings of a real operating system. What made MINIX special was that its entire source code was published in the book called Operating System. Now students and programmers all over the world could learn the very system that runs their computers. MINIX was not a particularly good operating system, so there was still something lacking; luckily, this book made its way to the hands of a very special Finnish programmer.
Linux began with Linus Benedict Torvalds. Linus (pronounced Lee-nous) Torvalds was born in 1970 and was raised in Helsinki, Finland. He started playing with computer programming on his grandfather’s Commodore VIC-20; Linus sat on his grandfathers’ lap and watched as his grandfather started programming. By the time he reached college Linus figured himself as a good enough a programmer to take on the massive task of creating an operating system for his PC in 1991. On August 25, 1991, Linus posted a message asking for ideas and input for his new, free, operating system:
"Hello everybody out there using minix -
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
; since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on
things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
among other things). I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40),and
things seem to work.This implies that I'll get something practical within a
few months, andI'd like to know what features most people would want. Any
suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)
PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs.
It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never
will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's
all I have :-(.
As apparent from the posting, Linus didn’t feel as if this was going to be something big, but in mid September Linus released version 0.01 of Linux, the name which was derived from Linus and Unix. This code was downloaded, tested, tweaked, and responses were sent back to Linus. All the while, momentum was building around Linus and his new operating system. On October 5 Linus released version 0.02, along with a posted message with a call to help improve the code:
From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Subject: Free minix-like kernel sources for 386-AT
Date: 5 Oct 91 05:41:06 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki
Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on a OS you can try to modify for your; needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you :-) As I mentioned a month(?) ago, I'm working on a free version of a minix-lookalike for AT-386 computers. It has finally reached the stage where it's even usable (though may not be depending on what you want), and I am willing to put out the sources for wider distribution. It is just version 0.02 (+1 (very small) patch already), but I've successfully run bash/gcc/gnu-make/gnu-sed/compress etc under it. Sources for this pet project of mine can be found at nic.funet.fi (184.108.40.206) in the directory /pub/OS/Linux. The directory also contains some README-file and a couple of binaries to work under linux (bash, update and gcc, what more can you ask for :-). Full kernel source is provided, as no minix code has been used. Library sources are only partially free, so that cannot be distributed currently. The system is able to compile "as-is" and has been known to work. Heh. Sources to the binaries (bash and gcc) can be found at the same place in /pub/gnu.
By December version 0.10 was released. Linux was growing quickly but had no clear direction.
In early 1992 Andrew Tanenbaum, the creator of MINIX posted a message to Linus commenting on the Linux operating system,
“I still maintain the point that designing a monolithic kernel in 1991 is a fundamental error. Be thankful you are not my student. You would not get a high grade for such a design :-).”
Linus later said that this was the worst part of the development for him, this was the “famous professor” and what he said mattered. Linus replied to the insulting post,
“You job is being a professor and researcher: That’s one hell of a good excuse for some of the brain damages of minix.”
In 1994 Linus “copylefts” Linux, which means that he had Linux put under the General Public License. (Along with the license, Linus creates a mascot for Linux, the penguin.) The General Public License (GPL) is a license that says that nobody owns the particular piece of software; this means that the rights of ownership are distributed to everyone; changes can be made as long as they are made public. The GPL guarantees that Linux will always remain free, and any program made under the General Public License will also remain free. Today the thousands of programs under the GPL have helped develop the open source movement at an astonishing rate.
At this time, commercial vendors are noticing Linux. Soon they began to package Linux and sell it in the mainstream market. While Linux is free, these vendors include compiled software such as word processors and games, as well as support for Linux. Some of these vendors include Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, Debian, and many others. (Check out Slackware, though not commercially distributed, it is a favorite.)
In 1995 Marc Ewing and Robert Young founded Red Hat, a company whose software, called a distribution, is based off Linux. In 1997 Linux begins to bloom, and a $2 million investment into Red Hat spurs the growth and marketing of Linux. Fermilab, a leader in scientific discovery, officially chooses Red Hat Linux as one of its operating systems; this causes many scientific as well as academic organizations to look at Linux. Many other companies get into the idea of open source. Netscape Communications, maker of the popular alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, decides to release its new browser for free, and will also release its source code. Major software vendors, including Computer Associates, Corel, IBM, Informix, Interbase, Oracle, and Sybase, announce plans to port their software to Linux. Sun Microsystems announces plans to release the source code for Java 2, a base programming language for the internet. Intel, the maker of supercomputers and microprocessors, the brains of the computer, never expected anything like Linux in their business forecasts. Red Hat and Intel meet and discuss strategies and what Intel would like from Red Hat. The meetings discussions are so far ahead of the goals of Red Hat that the executives of Red Hat walk out shaking their heads in disbelief.
Microsoft, the maker of the popular widespread operating system Windows, had recently gotten into trouble for operating monopolistically. Mired in an anti-trust case, they issued a statement citing Linux as evidence that the company does not have a monopoly on operating systems. Shortly thereafter the “Halloween” documents were leaked to the media. The Halloween documents were a series of internal memos released around Halloween in which Microsoft’s engineers discussed the threat of open source software and Linux to the commercial model. Microsoft is no fan of open source; they say that commercial software is but one choice in the software ecosystem, which is driven by customers, vendors, academia, and the government. Microsoft dominates this system through clever marketing, and monopoly-like tactics. Senior VP of Microsoft, Craig Munde, said that open source is a valued part of the software economy, but Microsoft won’t embrace it anytime soon. “Microsoft has no beef with open source. We happen to like and will continue to pursue commercial software as a business model Microsoft believes.” He also said earlier that open source undermines commercial software. In 1976 Bill Gates made this statement to the open source community,
“One thing you do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”
Little did Bill Gates know that Linux, a completely open source piece of software, would be the only challenger to him and Microsoft on the PC.
The open source software movement has been in motion since 1982 when Richard Stallman started the GNU project. Since then it has spawned the General Public License, and the Free Software Foundation. Open source is specifically software that is made publicly available, free, and whose source code is available so that it can be changed an improved. Open source is software that can be written by anyone for anyone. Using free compilers and programming libraries, software can be made and distributed for free.
One of the main ideas fueling the open source movement is intellectual property. There are two main facets to intellectual property, business and art. People can get pretty worked up over intellectual property. Intellectual property is about human inventiveness; it’s a part of who you are. Intellectual property requires creativity. It should be free; it’s hard to put a price on intellectual property, “The creator and the thing that he or she has created have a bond that cannot be severed.” Then there’s intellectual property as a business. Intellectual property is a huge business, “Human creativity got a price tag, and it turned out to be quite expensive.” But there is one flaw to this: consumer protection. This is the flaw of the commercial software market. There is no protection against poor software, while every other industry is regulated where there are certain standards that must be met, there are no regulations for commercially licensed software. There are two ways to survive the software market, either produce the best software you can, or market the best you can. If you can’t, then you deserve to fail. If a company controls a piece of software, they own it when it’s on any computer. “Success is about quality and about giving folks what they want. It’s not about trying to control people.”
In open source, the source code is free. Anyone can change, improve, or exploit the code. These changes need to be made available, thus improving the software. This allows for rapid and continual development. “That’s what we experienced with Linux.” Why would people do this for no money? In a society where survival is more or less guaranteed, money is not the greatest of motivators. People tend to do their best when they love what they do. Open source developers work to impress their peers, and make something that lasts. (Much like those on Everything2 do ;-)
The future holds bright for Linux. With millions of followers, and all of them working on Linux in one way or another, the development of Linux will greatly out do that of Microsoft’s Windows. With new pieces of software being added by the hour, Linux will not just be a flash in the pan. The open source movement is still going strong with help from the Free Software Foundation, massive databases of projects (Source Forge, Freashmeat), and from thousands of coders. Linux is no longer the only open source based operating system either, thanks to FreeBSD, BeOS, GNU and many others the open source movement will continue to thrive and grow. The market acceptance of the open source philosophy is growing daily as more and more companies adopt open source. As for Linus, he just got married and his daughter was just born. He’s not a billionaire like Bill Gates; he lives and works in Silicon Valley at the Transmeta corporation. Although he may not be rich, his impact on the technological as well as business realm will not be forgotten.
Goodman, Adam. “Corporate Open Source,” Linux Magazine, July, 2001, pp. 5
Harmon, Amy. “Rebel Code,” New York Times, February 21, 1999, pp. 34
Hassan, Ragib. “History of Linux.” History of Linux. http://ragib.hypermart.net/linux (2 Feb. 2002)
Moody, Glyn. Rebel Code. New York: Perseus, 2001.
Vance, Ashlee. “Microsoft Holds Firm in Open Source Debate,” PC World, July, 2001, p.23.
Young, Robert. Under the Radar. Scottsdale: Coriolis Group, 1999.
Much thanks to eliah for spending the time to help me edit this monstrosity. This write-up would be more convoluted without you :-)