20 years of Linux, the little kernel that could

A post on the comp.os.minix newsgroup, a community dedicated to the Minix OS, marks the beginning of Linux. On August 25th, 1991, Linus Torvalds wrote:

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, and
I'd like to know what features most people would want.  Any suggestions
are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)
                Linus (torva...@kruuna.helsinki.fi)
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 :-(. 

Torvalds was probably unaware at the time of the profound impact his hobby would have on the world of computers. While Linux has yet to take off on the desktop computing scene, Torvalds' project is used in a number of different places, from miniature smartphones to servers that take up several buildings. The fact that Linux is free for anyone to change and use has certainly helped, meaning it can be modified to make it more suitable for, say, running a smart TV, or powering a recording studio.

​The man behind it all

Torvalds' original post said that he was planning to write his own operating system. Strictly speaking, a Linux operating system never materialised. Linux exists today as a kernel, the lowest point of connection between software and hardware. But thanks to an earlier project that started eight years before Linux, this turned out not to be a problem. GNU, another free operating system that was missing a kernel, turned out to be a good substitute for developing an entire operating system.

GNU was started eight years prior to Linux by Richard Stallman, known to most as a passionate activist for the free software cause. Stallman's belief that individuals should be able to modify programs for their own needs led him to begin development on a free operating system. In 1991, the work from the GNU project was brought over to the Linux project to form a complete operating system. This has led to a naming controversy among developers, as while most people will talk about a "Linux operating system", activists believe that the resulting work should be known as "GNU/Linux".

Proof of the impact the new project was having came to light in 1998. The "Halloween Documents", a set of internal Microsoft reports leaked to the public around Halloween, showed the attitude Microsoft took towards the new OS. A strategy dubbed "embrace, extend, extinguish" detailed how Microsoft planned to maintain its stronghold on the server market. The document suggests the reason open source software is able to find so much success in the server market is due to standardised protocols. By extending these protocols out with Microsoft-only benefits, companies could be coerced into staying with Microsoft to take advantage of these bonuses. Another telling quote comes from the same document, in which Microsoft admitted "commercial quality can be achieved / exceeded by OSS projects."

Around the same time, companies were beginning to take Linux seriously. Version 2.0 of the kernel could deal with several processors at once, a crucial feature for large corporations. Big names like IBM and Oracle began to invest a lot more in Linux. In 2006, Microsoft announced a partnership with Novell, another big name in Linux development. The move was meant to cover both companies in case of patent disputes, as well as improving interoperability between the two companies' products. The deal was widely criticised by free software activists, who said that Novell had "sold out". Later, a revision of the GPL licence that Linux is distributed under would stop any future deals like this forming.

Linux moved from strength to strength. Dell started selling laptops powered by Linux, and Google announced a new mobile operating system based on Linux. Android, as it is known today, is making waves in the mobile market, but only a tiny fraction of its users would ever guess that Linux was running the show. Linux itself is still under consistent development, with version 3 released earlier this year.

It's hard to believe that 20 years on a hobbyist's project has gone from fun little toy to serious powerhouse, without which the tech world may have taken a very different shape. Although we're not all using Linux on our home computers, the project has found itself a nice little niche behind the scenes of our everyday life. From that moment you hit Send on a Facebook update, to your friend phoning you on your new HTC phone, a Linux-based OS is hard at work somewhere making sure the show runs smoothly. Here's to 20 years of Linux, and hopefully another 20 years to come.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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