Linux at 17 - What Windows promised to be
You can't stop the port
On October 5, 1991, the young man who would one day become the world's most famous programmer - and the brand name and poster boy for the open source software movement - sent a message to a newsgroup announcing the birth of what would become the Linux operating system.
You can read that original message that marks the birth of Linux as an open source project, posted by Linus Benedict Torvalds, on Google's archive of a newsgroup called comp.os.minix .
It is hard to guess how many programmers and system administrators have been educated by the Linux development project, but it forms the core of what so many experts and newbies believe in terms of what an operating system should have in it, how that code is created, and how the systems software stack that rides atop of it is created and maintained.
It is safe to say that many millions of IT experts have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by Linux and the open source software movement it unleashed on corporations. While academic and government institutions had long since supported open source software projects as well as the Unix open systems movement, it is Linux - first and foremost - that made open source a commercial idea and one that corporations could embrace.
Linux has come a long way in those intervening 17 years, which are a bit like dog years with respect to how computer technology (both hardware and software) moves at an accelerated pace compared to other technologies and areas of the economy. It is hard to say if Linux is middle-aged or not, since the successors to OS/360 are still around more than four decades later (in actual time), and the original Unix is almost as old.
Even the commercial implementations of Unix are three decades old, and commercial Windows servers became a reality in 1994, more than 14 years ago. Who is to say how long any of these platforms will be around in production environments, but the history of the computer industry suggests that legacy platforms linger longer than many expect but lose their potency in the market ahead of when many might have hoped. In many companies these days, the only two alternatives are Linux and Windows for new applications - and some day, far into the future that is hard to conceive, these will be legacy platforms too.
What Windows Promised to Be
But it's remarkable that an open source movement backed by a handful of commercial entities with very little marketing muscle - at least compared to the established proprietary and Unix operating system providers who made so much money in the 1980s and 1990s - could take on the data center and, more importantly, get the begrudging support of the very system sellers who had the most to lose if Linux took off. This is a testament to the powerful idea of a cross platform, open source operating system. Linux is what Unix should have been and wasn't.
Linux is what Windows had once promised to be - at least in terms of cross-platform support. In the wake of the PowerPC alliance from IBM, Apple, and Motorola in 1991, Microsoft made a commitment to support Windows NT 3.51 on PowerPC chips. Windows eventually added support for Digital's Alpha NEC's and SGI's MIPS chips. Workstation maker Intergraph ported Windows NT 3.51 to its Clipper chips and said it was creating a port to Sparc chips from Sun. Neither ports saw the light of day.
Windows NT 4.0, which came out in 1996, only supported nothing more than f32-bit x86, Alpha, and MIPS chips, and by the turn of the millennium, only x86 chips were supported. (Interestingly, the PowerPC alliance also lined up IBM's OS/2 and AIX Unixes - the OS/2 was never delivered - and even Sun Microsystems' SunOS Unix was slated for the PowerPC chips. IBM also ported its OS/400 minicomputer operating system to the 64-bit variants of PowerPC).
While Microsoft has expanded support to cover Itanium processors - mostly at the urging of Hewlett-Packard, Intel's Itanium development partner and the one with the most to gain from Windows-on-Itanium for its high-end Integrity servers - Microsoft has not made good on the initial cross-platform promises for Windows server. Microsoft has suffered from this, but not as much as Intel has been helped.
The beauty of Linux is this: You can't stop a port to a new architecture, even if you wanted to.
Happy Birthday Tux
Linux was at first very poor. That's to be expected. In 17 years it has improved some.
Although we call it Linux in most uses the GNU software does play more of a part and should be recognized, as well as the contributions of UCSD and contributors under their BSD license. The terms Operating System and Operating Environment are fairly nebulous even to this day. Still, we need an easy handle to hold it by, and "Linux" will do.
In the beginning it ran on one system with one processor (Linus's). Now it runs on 85% of the top 500 supercomputers, my wireless router and phones and many platforms in between (and beyond!). Hardware support used to be poor. Now Linux supports more hardware than any other system ever offered, period. This has been true for a long time.
Linux conquered the server room first, as is natural. The server room is a hot environment where professionals are classically educated and use real metrics to determine what works and what does not. Technologies are born and live or die in the server room before most of us ever see them. As the World Wide Web grew the power of Linux became obvious to the denizens of server rooms and it matured just in time to be adopted by many of them. In many cases the tech boom of the late '90s was a Linux boom.
Once upon a time it wasn't useful on laptops, but now it's on half of the top selling laptops on a major vendor, Amazon.com. Major vendors used to shun it, in deference to their major partner Microsoft. Now all major vendors offer it preinstalled, some in varying flavors. For a long time Linux was not pretty. Now it's not hard to convince people that a two year old installation of Linux is actually the "next" version of the dominant desktop OS. Linux is now the Belle of the Ball.
Software installation on Linux could still use some work. It's not as bad as Windows. The add/remove programs feature in Windows doesn't actually Add programs, except in certain rare circumstances. The add programs utilities in most Linux distributions links to repositories of software so deep they had to include an internal search engine. Still, the installers in most Linux distributions should also reference a "local" and "Local Area Network" repositories by default, so that applications could add themselves to these repositories as part of their standard installation process. They'll figure this out soon.
The Linux of today embraces the classical scientific rigor of a bygone era, the splashy interfaces marketing thrives on, and the brutal Darwinian winnowing of our current IT environment. It survives and it looks good doing it by doing what it does well.
Most importantly, the direction of the knife has shifted. The cutting edge isn't on optimum performance processing any more. We've seen the trap that that is finally - "Intel giveth, and Microsoft taketh away." Now the huge growth is thin-is-in low wattage desktops and laptops that somehow have gained 20% of the market share in just a year. Here the low overhead requirements of Linux are well positioned to exploit the growth of emerging markets abroad (the third world) and emerging markets at home (nettops, netbooks and thin clients). I believe this is by design -- many of the new generation of developers live in growth markets where building apps that require the juice sucking high wattage platforms of yesteryear is not targeting their optimum market because they just don't have the watts and building out the watts is just not going to happen. I also believe the major vendor is suffering from inertia and failed to make the turn here. In the challenging economic environment before us the power of "free" will gain considerable leverage for the next decade even at home.
There are major applications still which are preventing people from adopting Linux. Photoshop is a major example. As soon as Adobe realizes that their platform partner will not stop trying to kill them with their Adobe Flash replacement Silverlight, they may begin to see the wisdom in diversifying their platforms. Even if they don't, they're a weak anchor. Game vendors follow other platforms too, but their loyalty is transient anyway. The brutal evolution of games is such that the ones that choose the wrong platform die and the life cycle of a game company is about five years.
Linux is only a tiny fraction of the free software revolution, but it can bear the standard for the millions of developers and thousands of projects that march us toward the future. The use, reuse, and improvement of open projects increases the utility for all. For each little bit you put in, you get a million back. This is progress.
Happy birthday Linux and THANKS!
"Still, the installers in most Linux distributions should also reference a "local" and "Local Area Network" repositories by default, so that applications could add themselves to these repositories as part of their standard installation process."
All the big names, anyway.
Debian you add them either via GUI (if your debian derivative made one) or by hand to a sources.list file. For DVD decryption they tell you because if a USian can read and automatically break the DMCA because they made it too easy to update, the website WILL be closed down by the World Police (Fuck yeah!).
SuSE you can add via the YaST Software Management tool.
Mandrake does the same thing.
Red Hat may. Fedora does.
Usually all have the sources in some text file somewhere. Find it and edit it by hand and any Linux will manage it (one reason why you want the CLI is because all UNIX-likes are the same from the command line, the file names may be changed to protect the "IP").