On August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer, posted a message on an online forum about a free operating system kernel, Linux, he was working on. It was just meant to be a hobby project and he was looking for some input from his peers. Little did he know that his personal project would eventually turn into an operating system that changed the world. You probably interact with Linux every day without even realising it. Today, the operating system turns 25. We take a look at the evolution of the open source operating system over its 25 year history.
In The Beginning…
To understand why Linux is considered the most important software project in history, you need to look at where the operating system, in its various forms, is used. The answer is ‘everywhere’. Linux is used to power a huge chunk of the world’s infrastructure, such as web servers and core systems that the internet itself depends on. It underpins Android, the most prolific operating system used on smartphones. You’ll find Linux on nearly everything, including routers, switches, satellites, TVs, tablets, supercomputers and watches.
It all began in 1991 when a 21-year old Torvalds started work on a software project that later morphed into the Linux kernel. He never intended it to be a big thing; he just wanted to write software specifically for hardware he had in his then-new PC.
Originally called Freax, the Linux name was eventually chosen and Torvalds published the kernel under its own licence before releasing it under the GNU General Public Licence, making it open source. This gave others the freedom to use, share and modify the software.
By integrating the kernel with GNU components, Linux was transformed into a fully-fledged UNIX-like operating system.
Linux quickly piqued the interest of developers and programmers who passionately contributed to the open project. Back then, contributors did the work for free. As the operating system and the kernel itself became more widespread, being adopted and modified by organisations, the majority of contributors is now professional developers. Today, over 13,500 developers and more than 1300 companies have contributed to the Linux kernel since the project began to be tracked more than a decade ago.
Torvalds oversees the development of the kernel, working through the Linux Foundation, a non-profit custodian organisation of the operating system. Companies that make money from Linux by integrating the kernel into their own offerings, that also contribute to the project include, HP, IBM, Intel, Oracle and Red Hat and Google.
Traditionally, Linux was known as an operating system that is reserved for the most technology-savvy people. The command-line interface (CLI) was intimidating and far too complicated for end-users who gravitated towards the simpler graphical user interface (GUI) offered by Windows operating systems.
But times have changed and Linux has become much more accessible for desktop users, gaining a plethora of GUI options and better compatibility with external devices. Over the years, a number of Linux distributions have been released, all with their own unique flavours and user interfaces. Distributions like Mint are arguably easier to use than Windows, although it may still be some time before Linux ever comes close to the market reach that Microsoft enjoys with its operating system.
Which leads us to the turbulent relationship between Microsoft and Linux.
From Hate To Love: Linux’s Relationship With Windows
There was no doubt that Microsoft hated Linux. Microsoft was quite open about this, especially in during the time when Steve Ballmer, who once called the open source project a “cancer”. Here’s his full quote:
“Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches… The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source.”
But since Microsoft’s newest CEO Satya Nadella took over, the company has done a complete 180 on its attitude towards Linux and open source projects. First it made small moves to support Linux through its various offerings, including Azure, then Microsoft dropped a bombshell by announcing that it was bringing the Bash shell, a command-line tool used in Unix-like operation systems such as Linux, to Windows 10.
Most recently, Microsoft has open sourced its PowerShell, a widely used tool by IT administrator for automation and configuration of systems, and has published Linux and OS X flavoured binaries onto GitHub.
How times have changed.
While it started off as a hobby project, the operating system has blossomed into a professional project and continues to evolve. It is used to power pretty much everything IT-related and has played a huge role in making enterprises more receptive of open source software.
“Even after 25 years, Linux still serves as an example of how collaborative development can work, which can be applied to other open source projects,” The Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin said.
Happy Birthday Linux.