Linux turned 30 in 2021. The first Linux kernel was made public on September 17, 1991. So what exactly is Linux? Linux is a community of open-source operating systems that are developed on top of the Linux kernel. Linux comes packaged within Linux distributions.
What about Linux distributions? Linux distributions, or fondly called distro, are nothing but software collections based on the Linux kernel and a package management system. Users get to use Linux generally by downloading and installing a distro into their machines. We’ll have a more detailed discussion about Linux distributions in the later part of this write-up.
Linux was written by Finnish-American Software Engineer Linus Benedict Torvalds. Are you interested to know the history of Linux? How was it created? What’s the story behind the development and naming? How did Linux come under the GNU GPL license? What’s Linux mascot? What are the latest developments? What’s there between Microsoft and Linux?… Then this article is just for you. Let’s start!
Evolution of Computer
In earlier days, computers were as big as houses or parks. So you can imagine how difficult it was to operate them. Moreover, every computer has a different operating system which made it completely worse to operate on them. Every software was designed for a specific purpose and was unable to operate on other computer. It was extremely costly and normal people neither can afford it nor can understand it.
Evolution of Unix
In 1969, a team of developers of Bell Labs started a project to make a common software for all the computers and named it as ‘Unix’. It was simple and elegant, used ‘C’ language instead of assembly language and its code was recyclable. As it was recyclable, a part of its code now commonly called ‘kernel’ was used to develop the operating system and other functions and could be used on different systems. Also its source code was open source.
Initially, Unix was only found in large organizations like government, university, or larger financial corporations with mainframes and minicomputers (PC is a microcomputer).
What Inspired Creating Linux
AT&T was dropped from Multics. This led to the invention and implementation of the Unix OS in 1969. Unix was created by American Computer Science legends Kenneth Lane Thompson and Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie of AT&T Bell Labs. And the first version was released in 1970.
2 years later they created C out of UNIX. And there comes the future base of many programming languages! C added portability and availability to UNIX and thus it became increasingly popular, widely adopted, modified, and copied by businesses and academic institutions across the globe. AT&T was the sole owner of the UNIX copyrights.
American Programmer Richard Matthew Stallman began the GNU project to create a free UNIX-like operating system in 1983. He wrote GPL (GNU General Public License) as a part of his project. By the 1990s, there was enough software to build a complete operating system. However, Hurd, the GNU kernel couldn’t pull enough development work leaving GNU incomplete.
In 1987, American-Dutch Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum wrote UNIX-like system MINIX for academic use. The source code of MINIX was made available for everyone, however, MINIX couldn’t be either modified or redistributed. MINIX’s 16-bit architecture wasn’t well adapted to Intel’s increasingly popular 386 design for PCs. It became highly expensive for private users to use UNIX for Intel 386 personal computers.
And this led to Linus Torvalds’ beginning of a new project. Later Linus Torvalds stated that if either 386BSD or GNU Hurd was available during his time, he wouldn’t be interested in writing his project.
Torvalds’ Linux Development
On August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds began his project while studying at the University of Helsinki. This very project turned out to be the Linux kernel. It was based on MINIX. Also, GNU C Compiler was used in the development.
Torvalds’ new program was for the hardware used by him and independent of any OS. Linus aimed to use the functions of his PC having an 80386 microprocessor. Years later in 2001, Torvalds penned down his autobiography Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. In the book, he mentioned he started his project as “just a hobby” and ended up with an OS kernel. Then he was only 21 and announced the new project via a Usenet Newsgroup comp.os.minix.
So, what’s a Usenet Newsgroup? A Usenet Newsgroup is nothing but a Usenet repository used for updates posted by its users. They are basically discussion groups. and not particularly used for publishing news. Newsgroups are not technically but functionally the same as discussion forums. Newsreader clients are used for reading newsgroup content.
As per Linus Torvalds, Linux started gaining importance after porting X Window System to Linux created by Orest Zborowski. If you want to learn more about Orest Zborowski this interview might interest you. X Window System or X11 is common on UNIX-based operating systems. It’s windowing for bitmap displays.
The Story Behind the Name Linux
Freax was the name Linus Torvalds had in mind for Linux. Three words from the UNIX language, Free, Freak, and X, were combined to form Freax by Torvalds. Linus Torvalds kept his files in Freax for around six months. Linux was once taken into consideration but rejected because it would seem “egotistical.”
In September 1991, FUNET’s FTP server was used to upload files for the purpose of development. However, Ari Lemmke at HUT (Helsinki University of Technology), one of the FTP’s volunteer administrators, wasn’t quite fond of the name Freax. So, he altered the name as Linux on the FTP server. Later Torvalds consented to the same.
Torvalds added an audio guide to the Linux kernel source code to correctly pronounce the word Linux. Although the kernel was often used with other software of the GNU Project, the designation “Linux” was primarily used only for the kernel. It’s in fact, kernel very quickly became GNU software’s most popular adoption.
In June 1994, Linux was called a “free UNIX clone” in GNU’s bulletin. Also, the Debian Project named its product Debian GNU/Linux. In May 1996, Stallman published Emacs 19.31 editor. In the same, Linux became Lignux combining GNU and Linux. But soon GNU/Linux was favored over Lignux.
The name GNU/Linux garnered mixed reactions from the Linux community and users. Debian and the GNU projects preferred to use this name. But people generally liked to use Linux.
Role of GNU GPL in Linux
The first Linux kernel was published under its very own license. This had some restrictions on commercial activities. However, the first Linux kernel 0.01 was released with a GNU Bash shell’s binary. The software included was developed under the GNU GPL or GNU General Public License. It was a part of the infamous GNU project.
The “Notes for Linux release 0.01” were written by Linus Torvalds. He described the GNU software needed to run Linux in this note. He also disclosed that the GNU copyleft applies to the majority of the utilities. What is copyleft, exactly? The practice of copyleft allows you to freely modify and distribute intellectual property. You will also be expected to protect the rights in derivative works based on the same property.
Copyleft licenses are able to maintain copyright conditions of documents, computer software, art, etc. The information required for Copyleft is generally in source code file formats.
In 1992, Linus Torvalds wished to make the Linux kernel available under the GNU GPL license. And he revealed this in the version 0.12 of the release notes. Midway through December of the same year, Torvalds released version 0.99 under the GNU GPL. Together, the creators of Linux and GNU produced a free operating system that is completely functional. Making Linux GPLed was undoubtedly the best thing I’ve ever done, as Linus once stated.
Around 2000, Linus Torvalds announced Linux kernel comes under the GPLv2 license. After years of drafts and discussions, in 2007, Torvalds released GPLv3. But the majority of Linux developers including Torvalds wasn’t ready to adopt the new license.
A Linux mascot was announced by Linus Torvalds in 1996. When the Linux team was discussing choosing a mascot, Torvalds shared a personal anecdote. It was about a small penguin that bit him when he went to Canberra, Australia’s National Zoo & Aquarium. The group then debated whether a penguin should serve as the official Linux mascot.
American Programmer Larry Ewing presented the draft of today’s Linux mascot based on Linus’ experience with the little penguin. James Hughes suggested Tux as the name of the mascot. Tux came from Torvalds’ UNIX, along with being the contraction of the Tuxedo having a similar color to that of the penguin.
Today, supercomputers, smart phones, desktop, web servers, tablet, laptops and home appliances like washing machines, DVD players, routers, modems, cars, refrigerators, etc use Linux OS.