So in this week of anniversaries, Linux has turned 25, at least if you buy the notion that Linus Torvalds’ message asking for help building a new “just a hobby” operating system constitutes a ‘birth’.
And hasn’t it grown up? In the early 1990s with Windows rampant on the desktop and, after Windows NT, on the server too, Linux was widely regarded as a geek’s Unix and the media preferred to focus on Sun and Solaris. Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy was always good for a quote and the Sun stack was probably the most efficient corporate alternative to Windows hegemony or the old guard of IBM and HP.
But Linux reached early maturity because it was almost the twin of the World Wide Web, born (again, notionally) just a couple of days earlier. The scramble to get on the web from the mid-1990s heralded, as times of rapid change will, a golden age for skunkworks projects. Suddenly, IT departments were full of web monkeys, who ported their skills from Unix, trying to get cheap (i.e. non-Windows) web servers up and running on x86 boxes. From there, the spread of Linux and other open source technologies was viral.
In part, you have to give credit for the growth of interest in Linux to an unlikely source – Microsoft. By paying so much (negative) lip service to Linux and the FLOSS movement, by calling it “a cancer”, by raising the idea that companies could end up being sued and so on, the world’s biggest software company drew attention to what was still a fairly subterranean phenomenon. The entrenched positions created a media narrative too and Linux got a lift from the fact that it wasn’t Microsoft, just as the company’s reputation for tough tactics was burgeoning.
Another factor that helped Linux become a wonder-child was Red Hat, which was able to convince corporates that there was a way to herd the cats of open source development and provide a solid, enterprise-ready version of the operating system. The company’s 2002 IPO was, in retrospect at least, a totemic moment.
Now that Linux and other open source software is such a fundamental aspect of computing it’s interesting to recall just how it divided people in the 1990s. People would openly wonder how on earth open source software could be secure. It was ridiculed as a hippie phenomenon, a quasi-communist assault on information systems that should not be taken seriously. Even scions of the Unix movement mocked it: the aforementioned McNealy said that open source is “free like a puppy is free”.
Today, everyone from giants like IBM to Android app makers and even Satya Nadella’s Microsoft love Linux and open source, or at least attempt to conduct a marriage of convenience. How times change.
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